‘Please step forward. You are under arrest.”
It was Aug. 23, 2011, and I was protesting to show President Obama that there are people who stand against the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline, proposed by energy infrastructure company TransCanada, would transport tar sands from Alberta, Canada, to oil refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Two burly black-uniformed policemen motioned me forward and stepped around me to snap handcuffs into place. With a nudge in the back, they led me away from the White House and into a paddy wagon where I was told to wait in a stuffy metal compartment.
Had you asked me last year, I would have said that I would not trade my clean criminal record for anything. Yet here I was on the way to a local jail in D.C. I was one of 60 demonstrators who were arrested that day, the fourth in a two-week nonviolent protest.
Instead of transporting conventional crude oil, the Keystone XL pipeline would transport tar sands, a thick, corrosive substance, through the central United States. Pumping such a heavy substance requires higher pressure in the pipelines, which increases risks of spilling. In addition, the process of extracting usable oil from the tar sands releases approximately four times more carbon dioxide than conventional oil extraction.
This pipeline would disrupt large tracts of land, devastating wildlife habitat. Moreover, it would be built through the Ogallala Aquifer, the main source of drinking water for millions of people in the Midwest. It would also hurt the livelihoods of many rural farmers and cut through indigenous tribal lands.
Perhaps most alarming is the amount of carbon the tar sands would release into our atmosphere: if all recoverable oil in the tar sands were burned, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would increase to 600 particles per million. This is a terrifying number, considering that scientists agree that the safest upper limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 350 ppm. The current concentration is just above 390 ppm and rising.
The pipeline promises to yield short-term economic gain, but is this really worth risking such damage to the central United States, exacerbating climate change and perhaps compromising our long-term well-being? This pipeline and the oil from it will threaten our climate with damage future generations may not be able to mend.
Considering this evidence, I had a moral obligation to act. The evening before the day I was arrested, I met the other protesters at a civil disobedience training session where the demonstration’s organizers told us to expect arrests.
But far from being scared, I felt calm and resolute. I was going to follow through with my commitment not only because I had the support of 60 others with a common goal, but also because I had delayed personal action for too long. Before, I said I opposed climate change and I cared about the environment, but I never acted on my words.
The Keystone XL pipeline spurred me to action because this pipeline has the potential to change the ecosystems on which humans have depended for tens of thousands of years.
Two days after my two hours in jail, I was back at Yale. But my action in Washington empowered me to fully commit to environmental action, and I came to Yale ready to continue.
On Friday, Oct. 7, the State Department will hold its last hearing on the pipeline. The same day, the fight against the pipeline will reach Cross Campus. EnviroAdvocates, a branch of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition, is building a model pipeline made of used ice cream cartons. Yalies and other members of the New Haven community can sign a petition urging President Obama not to approve the pipeline. We hope that this action will raise awareness and help stop the Keystone XL pipeline’s construction.
Because of the transnational nature of the pipeline, President Obama has to sign a permit before the year’s end if the pipeline is to be built; Congress has no say in this decision. It is our responsibility to do everything in our power not to let President Obama sign this permit. At the moment, the most effective way to accomplish this is by lobbying. Maybe if we put enough pressure on President Obama, he will fulfill his campaign promise to listen to reason and prevent a potential global disaster.
Cynthia Deng is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.