DENG: Protesting a pipeline

‘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


  • fairbro

    Wow, 2 hours in jail.

    What next, the Nobel Peace Prize?

    Just curious, how did you get to your demonstration? You didn’t use any oil or gas-burning conveyances, right? No airplanes, trains, cars, buses? You walked?

  • RexMottram08

    Because of this article, I just donated to the PAC of several politicians who support the pipeline.

  • bobbyangler

    Who let the trolls out?

    Cynthia, thank you for standing up for all of us and for fighting for what you believe in.

  • SY

    Explain why it’s better to get the same heavy oil from Venezuela by ship than from Canada by pipeline. (That’s the kind of oil Yale’s old power plant uses to generate electricity, instead of using natural gas.) Obama will sign off at the last minute because it will create tens of thousands of union jobs here instead of there, and we, you, are going to buy and use oil either from here or from there. There is no oil substitute for transportation–try wind power in jets, ships, UPS trucks, etc.

    • ilovelovedontyou

      overseas shipping is actually very energy efficient (which is why it’s cheap). huge container ships have large inertia, the engines don’t need to run much after the initial burst to get out of the harbor.

      tar sands, what the proposed pipeline would supply, are incredibly energy intensive. it takes lots of energy to unearth huge fields of oily dirt, then heat it up then squeeze it under high pressure to eck out less dirty oily-dirt, then do the process again and again. the pipeline would need to move the oily-dirt across the country at very high pressure because of its density, all so that it can be refined again in houston and shipped for Export. That’s right, the proposed TransCanada plan is that this oil won’t even be used domestically; it will go right onto overseas ships. don’t believe me, look it up (and not through fox)

      • SY

        I lovelove your reply because it is accurate and without the anger I expect from many greens. Two things to consider. First, oil is fungible. So what may leave Houston as fuel oil/diesel will come into Conn. as heating oil on another ship. Second, we could develop less dirty oil, such as from Alaska and other federal lands, but it may be useful to hold it as a petroleum reserve for the next generation. But it will be produced unless we can substitute natural gas, or nuclear or fusion in some way. (I’m green enough to know that our 104 nuclear power plants should have been shut down after 40 years. They have been extended for 20 years, and probably another 20 years, because no one can do without them, and no one can build modern replacements.) Thanks.

  • wordswordswords

    Cynthia, you are awesome! Thank you for this article.

  • basho

    Confucius once said, “Yalie will travel many miles, burn four tanks of gas, and get beat up by five-oh to protest pipeline, but will not go to Dixwell for barbeque because he is afraid of the ‘black people'”. B+, but only because I feel sorry for your parents.

  • Aparent

    SY: Venezuelan bitumen is warmer in situ (and therefore less viscose) than Canadian tar sands bitumen, and therefore requires less energy to extract. In order to transport heavy oil by pipeline it must be heated, which requires even more energy. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would threaten one of the most critical aquifers in the US. Extracting oil from tar sands to create liquid fuel generates significantly more greenhouse gasses per barrel than an equivalent barrel produced from conventional oil. As for the jobs this pipeline would create, most of them would vanish as soon as the pipeline was built. The XL pipeline is not in our best interests, neither in the short-term nor the long-term. I suggest you investigate the many exciting non-petroleum alternatives to liquid fuel (even jet fuel) currently being researched and developed. With determination, we will overcome the remaining hurdles. In the meantime, we must conserve.

    Thank you, Cynthia, for writing this article.

    • SY

      Thank you, Aparent, for replying like Ilovelovedon’tyou, without screaming at me. Your facts are correct. The energy and environment groups are forcing choices among bad alternatives. I hope the non-petroleum alternatives you refer to are not like ethanol. It pollutes our land and needs hydrocarbon fertilizers, raises food prices, gets lower fuel mileage than gasoline, must be subsidized, and produces more CO2 than gasoline. A few gas lines like those after the 1980 embargo might lead to conservation. People then ran to buy 25-30 mpg cars; now they seem satisfied with 12 mpg SUVs and $80-100 fillups from oil that is not easy or clean to produce.

      • Aparent

        You forgot to mention that crop-based ethanol depletes our fresh water supplies and our soil! I agree – it’s a terrible solution. I’m intrigued by many things that I am too science-illiterate to really understand, such as: microbial electrolysis cells that use reverse-electrodialysis to produce hydrogen from wastewater or organic byproducts; storing hydrogen in nanoparticles of metal hydride sodium alanate or in molecular scale “veins” of iron permeating grains of magnesium; photocatalytic water splitting; using Clostridium bacteria to produce n-butanol; artificial photosynthesis; pond scum diesel… I found most of this on the website. Here’s a link to an article about the issues involved in greening jet fuel: Australia thinks it’s viable, however: I remember those gas lines… Maybe we need a hefty gas tax, with the proceeds going exclusively to fund alternative fuels research… There are many challenges ahead, but I’m hopeful. We just need the will to do this.

  • y_07

    I absolutely hate this sort of activism: the sort of activism which goes out to protest before thinking through the consequences. If you want to work to reduce the U.S. dependence on oil, I’m all for it. But as far as environmental impacts go, attacking Canadian supply is plain counterproductive. If you make Canadian production more expensive, you’ll just see production move elsewhere. There are two options:

    1) More production in countries with questionable environmental/political processes. Think Nigeria or similar situations. Think Ken Saro-Wiwa or similar, less heralded, stories. Think environmental destruction on an epic scale because the local bigwigs don’t care and there are no regulations.

    2) If the price goes up, more production from dirtier sources in the U.S. One possibility here is that if the price looks to stay significantly above $80/barrel, you’ll see significant production from the oil shales of the Colorado Plateau. This would produce a LOT more greenhouse gas than the equivalent production from tar sands. And it would require a ton of water in an area of the country with water shortages (for what it’s worth, the oil companies already own the water rights, and are leasing them to other users at the moment). And it would be pretty dirty.

    So, go stick it to the man and his dirty tar sands and protest your heart out. The earth mother needs you and all that jazz. And you get to signal to your friends that you care, you’re cool, you’re a “good” person. But if you win, don’t go crying when production shifts to even dirtier alternatives in the U.S. or abroad or oil companies make nasty deals in corrupt 3rd world countries.

    • ilovelovedontyou

      if oil stays significantly above $80/barrel, renewable energy sources become more competitive, thus reducing the need for oil extraction expansion. everything is just a question of degree.