Who We Are

We are thinkers and writers in Kazel Morgan's Community-Based Writing courses at Austin Community College. Our coursework takes us out of the classroom and into the larger community where we each contribute our own unique skills and talents to bring about positive change, in the community and in ourselves. We do volunteer service of all kinds, and we write. We write to tell the stories of our community partners. We write to question the underlying causes of social problems. We write to promote social and environmental justice and a better world for us all.  

A day at Cherry Creek Garden, a City of Austin Neighborhood Partnering project


"Thanks to everyone who came out for the workday. It was a beautiful day, and we accomplished so much, including getting the community plot planted with the volunteers from Dr. Kazel Morgan's class at ACC (who did an amazing job). Here's one of the volunteers bonding with a Texas spiny lizard--they affectionately named him Beyoncé." 

--Frankie Hefley, Director, Cherry Creek Community Gardens

Click here to see more beautiful garden photos by Mario



 My Perspective on Serving
                                                        by Mario Guajardo Clarke

A few weeks ago, I woke up on a Saturday morning wishing that I could keep my head on my pillow for a little longer. It was only 7:00 A.M. and I knew the kind of day that awaited me, as I would be painting houses for the community. Even though my mother described it as an opportunity to have fun in a productive way, I had never considered “community service” a desirable activity whatsoever. I used to think of volunteer work as a privilege for people who do not need a job to earn a living, and I hated the idea of spending my weekend on that type of activity. Nevertheless, I got out of bed by convincing myself it was the last time I would do it.

            As I drove to the place where I had been appointed, the rain got heavy and for a second I considered going back. I had seen the list of people who were planning on attending, and I thought to myself that a couple members less would do no harm. Yet, I chose to keep driving only because I wanted to get all my volunteer hours out of the way at last. 

            When I arrived, I found a small, yellow house with a group of three people standing in front of it. A man approached me and introduced himself as the director of the project, explaining that most of the other volunteers had cancelled. His disappointment filled me with surprise instantly.  I had only known him for a second, yet I could see how important this project was and how badly he needed help. I was later told that the owner of the house was also extremely excited about the opportunity, as she had never been able to decorate her house due to her inability to walk.  The realization hit me like a bullet, and for a second I felt guilty for my initial reluctance.

I thought about my mother’s idea of community service as an activity for leisure, and I realized neither of us had understood what serving the community meant. The project we had was not intended to fill our schedule or to give a college student an opportunity to gain service hours. It was certainly not meant to be entertaining, either. Instead, it was simply a way of giving our time and effort to someone who needed it, and it had the potential to make them happy.

            When we talk about community service, we often make the mistake of defining it simply as a great way to spend our time by getting involved. The task loses its meaning when it becomes a requirement, with people explaining it is our duty as citizens to act up. Personally, I found the lack of purpose burdening, and I woke up that day thinking I was being forced to fulfill a boring task. But in the moment I was finally handed a brush, I had experienced enough to see that those few hours of my day would have an impact on somebody’s entire life. I could picture the smile of the owner upon seeing her house looking beautiful again. The brightly colored walls would remind her every day that there is someone out there who cares and wishes to help, and being that person meant a lot to me. Strangely, I started feeling like part of the team, and I worked tirelessly covering every spot.

            This was not my first time volunteering, but it was the first time I witnessed the importance of my actions. I remembered an article by Harlow in which she asks herself “if something as simple as a short stack of pancakes can bring about a small shift in society”, referring to her decision to bring free breakfast to a lady who seemed tired and in need of care. From personal experience, I can say simple actions have an impact.  I found social service to be like an investment.  When we choose to take a fraction of our time to help our neighbor, we turn the time we often undervalue into a streak of joy for somebody else. Probably the greatest satisfaction I got from my decision of not going back home that morning came in realizing that my tough day would leave a smile on that lady’s face. I would like to invite the reader to take the time to lend a hand to a neighbor, as just an hour of our day could bring enormous changes to somebody in need. Even when our help seems irrelevant in a large group of volunteers, there is no purer gift than telling someone,    “I want to give you my time, because I believe you deserve it.”                                                                                                                             

Searching for Community: Rejecting the Past and Embracing the Future

                                                                        by Sam Cook

     After moving to Austin from North Carolina, I found it difficult to find a community similar to the one I grew up in. In my

hometown, I had a strong community of friends and mentors where I felt included and safe. This community was a group of likeminded individuals bound by an interest in radical politics and involvement in the arts. There was a great period of uncertainty after moving to Austin. I felt very isolated here, and didn’t have a sense of belonging. Only recently have I found a community of friends that make me feel comfortable and included. My new community is a very positive force in my life but, it is misunderstood by other communities in Austin.

     You cannot truly understand a community you have not spent time in. Many communities are stigmatized due to lack of understanding. My community is often surrounded by controversy and gossip from our peers. People view us with a very misguided lens. It is true that some of the people in our community have been made poor decisions. Some of us have been on drugs, stolen from our friends, and ran away from home. But, we have learned to reject the people we used to be and embrace living healthy, stable, and happy lives. One member of our community was addicted to heroin and ran away from home, leaving her friends and family to worry about her. Luckily, we were there to see that she got the help she needed, and now she has been sober for over a year. But, she’s still seen by our old classmates and peers as who she used to be, and our community is seen as untrustworthy by association.

     The reality of our community is, we are all deeply invested in each other in a genuine way. I have been a part of many different communities and groups where I didn’t feel safe to truly express who I am. I always felt that I had to watch my words, and keep a part of myself hidden, for fear of being judged. The members of my community have all been in situations like that. We have learned the value of being able to be vulnerable to the people you love. We all strive to be as genuine as possible, and reject attitudes that treat others as disposable. The community I grew up in is very similar to the one I associate with now. We are brought together with a shared interest in artmaking, radical politics, and social justice. Like my old community, my friends have become my mentors. They are inspiring individuals with unique life stories and insight on the world. We all learn from each other and grow on our own terms. This is very valuable for any community. Learning from your peers is an essential part of growing as a person.

     It is a relief to finally find a community that I feel safe in after moving to a new state. I spent the better part of two years floating from different circles, looking for a space I could call a home. As David L. Kirp says in the essay, Almost Home: America’s Love-Hate Relationship with Community, I was “window shopping for an identity,” and cautiously picking the right one. In retrospect, it has been very beneficial to be selective with who I associated with and the communities I spend time in. Although people may always misunderstand the community I am involved in, that has never deterred me from being a part of it. I understand what my peers and parents might think, but that doesn’t discredit the positive force my community has on my life.

Kirp, David L. Almost Home: America's Love-hate Relationship with Community. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2000. N. pag. Web.

Working With the Pinnacle Green Team



ACC Green Team

                                                              by Kaitlin Chambless

     Our planet is home to over seven billion humans, nearly eight million different species of animals, and over two hundred thousand types of plants, and even though it seems to be thriving with abundant life, our planet is dying. Overconsumption of fossil fuels creating harmful emissions in the air, constant tearing down of millions of acres of trees, and overproduction/mismanagement of municipal solid waste are just a few contributors to that fact. How can we counteract these damages that have already been made? We can become overwhelmed and feel hopeless when we look at the harm to the Earth caused by human actions, and we hear that “ the heat accumulating in the Earth because of human emissions is roughly equal to the heat that would be released by 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs exploding across the planet every day” (Gillis 4). But there is hope for positive change to happen, and it starts locally in the homes, neighborhoods, and schools of every community in the United States. That change towards a more sustainable and healthy Earth is happening in Austin, Texas, and one of the prominent advocates for this eco-revolution is the Austin Community College Green Team.     

     The Austin Community College (ACC) Green Team is comprised of volunteer students, staff, and faculty who want to raise awareness to increase sustainability at their own campuses and better the environment in the surrounding communities. The Green Team focuses mainly on providing alternative forms of transportation for students to take to and from the ACC campuses, conserving energy and water when possible, and encouraging recycling and reducing waste production at the various campuses. In the past semesters, the Green Team has implemented the policy of alternative transportation by encouraging the use of the city bus system or carpooling with a friend to school in an effort to reduce the emissions that come from student’s cars. ACC partnered with this policy by offering lower cost bus passes to students and reserving parking spots closer to the school for those who participate in the carpooling program. Also, the amount of energy that each campus uses has been significantly reduced because of motion sensors for the lights in various rooms and the Green Team’s “Lights Out” initiative that encourages people to save electricity by turning off all the lights when leaving a room on campus. Additionally, to conserve water, the ACC Highland campus has created a system that catches rainfall to reuse for water to flush toilets and urinals on their campus, and the Riverside and Round Rock campuses will be installing water reclaiming projects to treat and purify waste water so that it can be used again to satisfy the water needs on their campuses. The Green Team is also beginning to petition for the Simon’s Cafes at the ACC campuses to discontinue their use of Styrofoam dishware and to replace them with plastic cups, bowls and plates. Switching from Styrofoam to plastic in the cafes would be beneficial to ACC because Styrofoam cannot be recycled (since it is not biodegradable), and even though plastic ware is more expensive than Styrofoam it can easily be recycled and will benefit all the ACC campuses in the long run.

     After hearing about these breakthroughs in sustainability, I decided to join the ACC Pinnacle Green Team, and this semester the team’s main focus has been increasing the awareness of overproduction of solid waste and the importance of reducing said waste by recycling in the Pinnacle building. To raise awareness for this issue, we had to conjure up a fun and exciting way for students to learn more about this pressing issue. So the fantastic idea that the Pinnacle Green Team came up with was to have the students play “trash basketball”. We had a table in the front lobby where students had to choose what items could and could not be recycled and then shoot the trash into either the landfill or recycling bin. After working the table and talking with the students that stopped by, I realized that many of the Pinnacle students and faculty did not recycle or even know what can and cannot be recycled. This information shocked the Green Team and encouraged us to figure out why the faculty and students know so little about recycling and the environmental risks caused by our waste production. Was it due to lack of education about this issue or just convenient access to recycling receptacles was limited? These were the questions we needed to ask ourselves.

     The question of education could be answered by a study done on residents of a Southeast Chicago community that tested the effectiveness of environmental education programs and the correlation it had with the residents “perceive[ing] their risk factors in a broad context [while also] [. . .] including environmental health risks caused by pollutants” (White, Hall, Johnson 24). The residents did not trust their local government, so they learned about the effects of solid waste on their community from their trusted friends and family. This was a problem because those informants were not trained in environmental education so the information could become corrupted. To fix that problem, they needed to use classes to educate people on environmental health so they can learn accurate information that can in turn be spread among the residents to protect the community’s health and environment (White, Hall, Johnson 24). The residents realized from this study that they can inform one another about environmental issues, but awareness and information accuracy can be increased when they have the proper training. The Green Team can also increase our knowledge of environmental education for ourselves and then use this technique to make the students and faculty more aware of waste production at the Pinnacle campus because they will trust the information they are receiving since it is coming from their fellow peers.

     A different study was conducted for eight weeks to see if the practice of recycling on a college campus could be increased by adding more convenient recycling bins without any extra promotion or environmental education. They used a control building that had the university approved recycling bins outdoors, and two tester building (a faculty administration building and a student classrooms facility) that continued with the outdoor recycling receptacles for the first four weeks and then added indoor recycling bins for the last four weeks. After the eight weeks was over and they collected all their data, Wight, Johnston, and Wight concluded that “when indoor recycling opportunities were made available, total recycling volume increased in the treatment classroom and administrative buildings by 65% and 250% respectively” (28). There was a concern that there would be no increase in the students recycling without the extra recycling bins having any additional promotional materials with them, but just adding more recycling receptacles was enough to increase student’s participation in reducing waste on their campus. This strategy could help the Green Team increase student willingness to recycle without worrying about providing the Pinnacle students and faculty with extra information. Also, since ACC is a commuter school, people might not have the time to talk to a Green Team member about environmental issues or read a promotional poster on the wall, so we can make up for that information gap by increasing the amount of receptacles we have at Pinnacle to make recycling more convenient for those people on the go.  

Recycling is a major prevention method to protect not only our health as humans, but the health of the planet that all of us call home. It safeguards the essential resources and basic needs that we get from the Earth like clean water to drink, safe air to breathe, and permeable land to grow our food, and if action is not taken to conserve those essentials today, then we may not have them tomorrow. “Schools and college campuses represent a recycling intervention priority worldwide because of the potential for colleges and universities to contribute to a community’s waste stream and impact environmental-related human health” (Wight, Johnston, Wight 27), and the Austin Community College Green Team is paving the way for faculty and students at Pinnacle to become that beacon of hope for our community and take a stand against polluting our Earth. We not only owe it to ourselves to live more “green conscious lives”, but we owe it to the future generations to inherit a world that is not coated in trash and dying but sustainable and teeming with life. We can create a clean world by beginning with our own communities (while remembering to think globally), and by living out four simple words: reduce, reuse, and recycle.


Works Cited

 Gillis, Justin. "Short Answers to Hard Questions About Climate Change." The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 Nov. 2015. Web. 9 Apr. 2016.

Largo-Wight, Erin, Dedee Delongpre Johnston, and Jeff Wight. “The Efficacy Of a Theory-Based, Participatory Recycling Intervention On A College Campus. "

            Journal Of Environmental Health 76.4 (2013): 26-31. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Apr. 2016.

White, Brandi M., Eric S. Hall, and Cheryl Johnson. "Environmental Health Literacy in Support of Social Action: An Environmental Justice Perspective.” Journal 

           of Environmental Health 77.1 (2014): 24-29 6p. CINAHL Complete. Web. 7 Apr. 2016     


Facing Up to Climate Change

Giving a Farewell Kiss to Keystone

                                 by Igor Yukht

     An ominous dark threat looms overhead. A potential disaster that may not only affect all of us Americans, but the welfare of all humankind and many of earth’s inhabitants. But this isn’t your typical doomsday threat: it isn’t the threat of nuclear war; nor is it the dread of a sudden and lethal killer, in the form of a pandemic causing virus. No, this is not something one would hear being argued about vigorously in the evening news. And yet, it is a danger of similar, if not equal magnitude. It is a project dubbed ‘The Keystone XL Pipeline’, an ominous threat that must be stopped from formalizing, before it is too late.

     The Keystone XL Pipeline project (not to be confused with the regular Keystone pipeline, which is already operational) is headed by the TransCanada Corporation, a behemoth energy corporation – based in Calgary, Canada – which develops and operates a great bulk of all the oil and natural gas infrastructure in North America. Among their many ventures in this slippery field is the mining and transport of so-called “tar sands” – a sticky mixture of sand, clay, water and bitumen. What is this bitumen? Well, to put it in simple terms, it is essentially the same crude oil energy companies harvest worldwide – made out of prehistoric algae and other microorganisms – only in this case, it also happens to be stuck to the materials in the mixture mentioned above. In order to get the bitumen to separate from this sticky mixture, large quantities of steaming water and natural gas are needed – so large, in fact, that the entire process is estimated to produce between 2.5 to 3 times more CO2 emissions than regular surface mining (We will talk more in-depth about the environmental impacts in a bit). According to David Biello of the ‘Scientific American’, once the bitumen is extracted, it is “cooked” in high heat to remove excess carbon from it, and is then mixed with light hydrocarbon, to form a mixture called dilbit (diluted bitumen) and to make it liquid enough to be transported through pipelines, just like regular crude oil. The resulting mixture would then be bound to refineries in the U.S., mainly in Oklahoma and along the Gulf Coast – particularly in Texas (2).

     This is precisely where the Keystone XL pipeline comes into the picture. The proposed pipeline is in fact a continuation of an already existing series of pipelines, but, if approved, will be the longest so far (1,702 miles of new pipeline), stretching from Hardisty, Alberta, down to Nederland, Texas, and will traverse no less than 6 states (including Texas). It would have a capacity of 900,000 bpd (barrels per day) and a width of 36 inches (the bare minimum). Its cost is estimated at $7 billion. The pipeline is needed – according to energy companies on both sides of the border – in order to quickly and safely transport the dilbit to refineries in Texas. Both they and other proponents of the pipeline – including powerful figures in the U.S. government – claim the pipeline will reduce the U.S’s oil dependency and create many jobs. Opponents, on the other hand, claim it will have catastrophic implications on ecology, wildlife, fresh-water sources, agriculture, global warming and indigenous populations, both in the U.S. and in Canada.

     Specifically,  proponents of the solution claim it would create anywhere between 13,000 and 20,000 short-term manufacturing and construction jobs, as well as between 250,000 and 550,000 permanent “spin-off” jobs (depending on the price of oil). They also claim it would allow the U.S. to satisfy a great deal of its unquenchable energy needs, by not only receiving the oil from a friendly country, but also by reducing our dependency on unstable and corrupt regimes that inflate oil prices at their own whim – namely OPEC countries such as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, and also Mexico, which is not part of the organization. To put everyone at ease, the Canadian giant also claims it has implemented 57 new safety standards to minimize the chance of any spillage occurring. Finally, proponents claim that even if we cancel the project altogether, TransCanada will simply establish a pipeline throughout its own land, which will pump oil to its coast of the Pacific Ocean, where it will be loaded on tankers bound for China. Either way, say the project’s supports, the bitumen will be mined and sold, so why not make sure it is sold to us?

     Well, let’s talk numbers for a second and go over each of their claims. Firstly – the 20,000 short-term jobs figure. It was first introduced by TransCanada itself, and was backed by an allegedly independent study performed by The Perryman Group, an economic and financial analysis firm based in Waco, Texas. The firm had also calculated the 250,000-550,000 permanent jobs number. Indeed, many news sources, such as ‘The New American’, have since mentioned similar figures, as well as various conservative politicians, including House Speaker John Boehner,  and even the first draft of the official report of the Department of State – which has the final say whether to “green-light” the project or not. Unfortunately, what they all missed entirely, is that, according to Curtis Brainard of the “Columbia Journalism Review”, The Perryman Group “was hired by TransCanada to evaluate Keystone XL” (1). Thus, TPG’s numbers are dubious at best, and downright misleading in reality. The fact they are based in the same state whose refineries are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the bitumen, makes their credibility extremely questionable.

     Secondly, proponents claim that the pipeline will allow the U.S. a great measure of independence from OPEC countries, which are rich in oil and therefore can set its price at their own whim. But a “Natural Resources Defense Council” report wonders why we must depend solely on crude oil in the first place. They claim that we can use existing technologies and measures to reduce our dependency on it, such as:

Higher efficiency new cars (hybrids), improved fuel economy standards (fuel efficient tires and oils for existing cars and aerodynamic retrofits for existing truck fleets), advanced environmentally sustainable biofuels, smart growth and transit (walkable communities, carpools and greater reliance on trains to reduce freight trucks pollution), electric vehicles and air travel improvements, and (of course) further research and development. (4)

They also claim (as opposed to the Energy Information Administration’s data) that oil consumption in the United States has actually stabilized – which means that our oil needs are not rising. This is actually due to the slow but steady implementation of the oil saving policies mentioned above. And, according to the NRDC, such oil saving policies “could reduce our oil consumption by 2.3 mbd (million barrels per day) by 2020 and by 7 mbd by 2030” (4). In fact, they believe that if we accelerate the implementation rate of said policy and use our ingenuity, we could actually “eliminate fossil fuel use altogether by 2050” (4).

     Thirdly, proponents claim that the pipeline would be extremely safe, with the probability of a spillage practically minimal to non-existent. In fact, Claudia Cattaneo of the ‘Financial Post’ notes that TransCanada’s very own President and CEO, Russ Girling, claims that:

TransCanada has built similar pipelines in North America for half a century, that there are 200,000 miles of similar coil pipe in the United States today, that with the 57 improvements above standard requirements demanded by U.S. regulators so far, Keystone XL will be the safest pipeline ever built. (1)

Sadly, what they forgot to mention concerning the alleged 57 “new” improvements, is that many of them are not improvements in the first place. In fact, as Elizabeth McGowan of the “InsideClimate News” points out:

According to recent research by the “Natural Resource Defense Council”, only 12 of the 57 conditions set by federal regulations at the Department of Transportation differ in any way at all from the minimum standards the DOT routinely requires for pipeline safety … ‘Many of these safety conditions are just restating current regulations’, said Anthony Swift, the NRDC energy analyst responsible for the point-by-point study. (1)

     Apart from this acute observation, TransCanada would be wise not to flaunt its safety record, as it is far from perfect. On their website, NRDC has compiled a report which points out that: “… within a few months of beginning operation, TransCanada’s recently completed Keystone pipeline had leaked at least three times in South Dakota” (2). This is supported by South Dakota’s own Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR). And TransCanada is not alone, not by a long shot. Enbridge, yet another Canadian energy giant – which uses similar safety standards – has made great progress in defiling American soil. Using official Pipeline Hazardous Material and Safety Administration data, the NRDC notes that: “In 2010 alone, Enbridge pipelines spilled over 1 million gallons of oil from Canada’s tar sands into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River; 275,000 gallons in a suburb of Chicago; and 126,000 gallons near Neche, North Dakota” (2-3).

In fact, these tar sands oils pipelines are so dangerous (due to the bitumen mixture’s corrosive nature as opposed to regular crude oil), that “between 2000 and 2009, pipeline accidents were responsible for 2,794 significant incidents and 161 fatalities in the United States” (2), points out the report. 161 lives that were prematurely cut due to our dependency on one of the most polluting energy sources known to man.

     The proponents’ last major claim, as briefly mentioned earlier, is that if the U.S. won’t buy the oil – China most certainly will, and that TransCanada is allegedly more than ready to reroute its plans (and pipelines) and build a pipeline which would make it possible, by pumping all of that bitumen to tankers waiting on Canada’s Pacific coast. The proponents even claim this could be a reality sooner than we can imagine. Brian Koenig of the ‘New American’ baldly claims: “A subsidiary of the China National Oil Company has already offered $2.1 billion to buy a Canada oil sands producer in Calgary” (4).

     Not so fast, says David Biello. While proponents have been all too keen to base their assessments off the Department of State’s first draft on the Keystone matter, the Environmental Protection Agency saw the matter in a different light and managed to prove them all wrong. As it so happens, in its first draft, the DoS believed that even if Keystone XL was not to come to fruition, TransCanada would still find another economical way of transporting the oil to consumers. The EPA responded, claiming that the DoS initial report “relied on faulty economics, among other oversights” (4). Biello illustrates this:

The EPA, drawing on past experience with big environmental assessments, suggested that alternatives to Keystone XL were either significantly more costly or faced major opposition. Having to get by without Keystone XL, in other words, might constrain tar sands development. In May (of 2011), the International Energy Agency (IEA) confirmed this analysis in its own prediction for the tar sands. (4-5)

Biello concurs with IEA’s assessment and further elaborates it. He states that while tar sands can be transported by freight trains (and indeed they already are) this measure is “three times more expensive than by pipeline at current rates” (5). It would therefore make no sense, according to him, to solely use trains as the means of transportation, due to said cost barrier, while the amount of bitumen extracted increases.

     Biello also explains why an alternative pipeline (whether going to the Pacific or to the Atlantic Ocean) may not be a viable solution either. A Pacific pipeline is actually “the least viable choice” (5) according to him, as it “would have to traverse the Rocky Mountains, passing through land owned by First Nations and other native groups in British Columbia, who have opposed a pipeline for fear of spills and other impacts” (5). In fact, this would not be the first time either that such an opposition from the indigenous population in Canada is mounted. Chris Sorenson and Luiza Ch. Savage of Canada’s national “Maclean’s” newspaper note that when the Enbridge Corporation proposed the “North Gateway project” – a $5.5 billion twin pipeline going to Canada’s Pacific coast, the project “encountered stiff resistance from local communities, fisherman, and more than 80 First Nations” (3).

     An Atlantic pipeline wouldn’t be much more feasible, either, according to Biello. It could actually be constructed from existing pipelines that link Alberta to the eastern coast of North America, but for that to happen, “engineers would have to reverse the flow of oil” (5). This technique has proved to be dangerous in the past, especially when dealing with older pipelines, which are naturally more prone to leaks. In fact, ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline leaked tar sands oil just this past April. Giving all this data, it is clear why, just as with a Pacific pipeline, “retrofitting existing pipelines (to establish an Atlantic pipeline) is likely to elicit strong protest from environmentalists and others” (5), which would make life all the more difficult for the energy companies.

     Now that we have talked about the major arguments of Keystone’s proponents, let’s talk about many of the reasons to be concerned about, if such a pipeline were to be built after all. For one, let’s look at the dire environmental consequences that have already been caused by tar sands mining, and will undoubtedly worsen should the Keystone XL pipeline is allowed to be constructed.

     We have already discussed earlier the many spills – and the numerous tragic and pointless injuries and deaths which occurred due to them – which similar pipelines have caused in the past. But what of the impact of tar sands mining on wildlife and humans in Canada?

     A “National Wildlife” (World Edition) article by Daniel Glick explored this impact. In spring of 2011, lobbyists and industry stakeholders converged on Capitol Hill to participate in a hearing pompously titled: “Rising Oil Prices and Dependence on Hostile Regimes: The Urgent Case for Canadian Oil”. This hearing was organized by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs – a committee which currently has a clear Republican, pro oil industry majority, as indeed does the House itself. While most of the participants practically cheered for the Keystone XL solution and claimed that “high-tech monitoring techniques” would prevent major environmental disturbance, one lone voice had a totally different view of the situation. His name was Jeremy Symons, Senior Vice President of the National Wildlife Federation.

     Mr. Symons had been to Alberta’s tar sands region, and witnessed first-hand the environmental catastrophe that was caused by the low-grade, dirty bitumen. Among his observations were: “massive toxic tailing ponds, open-pit mines, chemical-belching smokestacks and processing plants now stretched along hundreds of square miles that were once part of an intact boreal forest wilderness” (1).

     This toxic impact on the natural habitat of many wildlife species was not omitted from his speech:

This far northern wilderness provides critical breeding habitat for millions of North American birds … A single square mile of boreal forest can support 500 nesting pairs of migrants. Toxic tailings ponds have killed thousands of these birds… Symons noted that Alberta’s tar sands development also lies smack in the middle of a flyway that serves the endangered whooping crane and other species. (4)

Symons’ conclusion to his speech was that of sad irony, exposing the oil industry’s cynicism and exaggeration. He showed the committee a picture of a scarecrow draped in a yellow rain slicker, as an example for the industry’s “high-tech solutions”. They would not prevent, sadly, the cranes and other birds from landing in the toxic slush ponds.

     These toxic tailing ponds are the byproduct of “cooking” the bitumen in very high temperatures, and have become the source of criticism from scientists and environmentalists alike. David Biello, who has also seen the mines and the processing plants first hand, writes: “The mines, with their vast lakes of toxic water residue and blocks of bright yellow elemental sulfur, are already big enough to see from space – an industrial patch steadily spreading in the boreal forest” (3). If one considers the fact that not many man-made objects can be seen from space during day time, one quickly comes to the realization that we have a large problem on our hands. For comparison, one of the largest objects thought to accomplish this was the Great Wall of China, and that claim has been debunked many times.

     In an interview with Amy Goodman for ‘Democracy Now!’, Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a member of Alberta’s indigenous community, also comments about the ponds and their effects on human population:

They’re called ponds, but they’re actually big toxic sludge lakes. They currently span 180 square kilometers (70 square miles) just of toxic sludge that’s sitting on the landscape. So, every day, a million litters (265,000 gallons) are leaching into the Athabasca Watershed, which is … where our families drink from … And these (toxins) contain cyanide, mercury, lead, poly-aromatic hydrocarbon, naphthenic acid. So, there are a lot of issues that we’re dealing with health-wise. (2)

     Another interviewee, Tzeporah Berman, a leading environmental activist in Canada and the former co-director of Greenpeace International’s Climate Unit, had this to add: “The tar sands produce 300 million litters (80 million gallons) of toxic sludge a day, which is just pumped into open-pit lakes that now stretch 170 kilometers (106 miles) across Canada” (3).

     NRDC’s report goes even deeper into the health problems caused by tar sands burning. It notes that these tar sands contain much more various toxic chemicals than regular crude oils. The result is that anyone who lives near an oil refinery is exposed to multiple health risks, including cancer, asthma, heart and lung disease. What makes matters even worse is that these refineries are located in areas that already do not meet air quality standards, probably in poorer neighborhoods that are adjacent to the industrial zones (3).

     Another major point of concern is closer to home – the Ogallala Aquifer. This huge source of drinking and irrigation water goes through no less than 8 states (Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas). According to NRDC’s report it also “serves as the primary source of drinking water for millions of Americans and provides 30 percent of the nation’s ground water used for irrigation” (3). Even if we accept the more conservative estimate of the December 2011 issue of “Congressional Digest”, we still have “only” 20 percent irrigation water usage (295). Unfortunately, it seems that part of the Keystone XL pipeline (mainly in Nebraska and a little in South Dakota) is planned to actually go through (and above) the aquifer. NRDC’s report concludes that “A pipeline leak (inside the aquifer) would have devastating effects” (3). Indeed, the same effects we have already heard first-hand from Canadian Melina Laboucan-Massimo, whose drinking water has been contaminated by the byproducts from the tar sands mining operations.

     Yet another issue – perhaps the most disturbing – is the amount of CO2 (carbon-dioxide) the mining operations emit into the earth’s atmosphere. Alberta’s tar sands alone hold as much as 275 billion metric tons of “trapped” carbon, according to Biello (3). He also quotes John P. Abraham, a mechanical engineer of the University of St. Tomas, Minnesota saying: “If we burn all the tar sands oil, the temperature rise just from burning those tar sands will be half of what we’ve already seen, or roughly 0.4 ºC of global warming” (3).

     But why is that such a big problem? Well, CO2 persists in the atmosphere for centuries and continues to trap heat all that time. Therefore, its accumulation in the atmosphere contributes to global warming. According to climatologists, we cannot pass the 450 ppm (parts per million) of carbon, which corresponds to a 2 ºC warming. Beyond that “some scientists fear that climate change could prove catastrophic” (2), as Biello points out. Indeed, according to NRDC’s report, aside from the CO2 emissions, tar sand oils “also create emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrous oxide (NOx), which contribute to acid rain” (3). Thus, we can see that climate change happens just from these two harmful chemicals, even without CO2.

     So how much carbon can we “afford” to burn? According to physicist Myles Allen – not that much. As Biello explains it, in 2009, Myles and six other scientists of the University of Oxford created what is now known as the “carbon budget”. According to this budget, we can only allow ourselves to burn 1 trillion metric tons of carbon by 2050. It doesn’t matter how fast you burn it, and it doesn’t matter where it comes from. Any carbon based fuel, including fossil fuels, coal, natural gas, wood and tar sands add to the overall budget (3). And, to put it into perspective, 275 billion tons of carbon is more than a fourth of the entire budget, and it could potentially come from tar sand oil burning alone. Allen believes that even without the tar sands, at the going rate of 9.5 billion tons burned a year, we would reach the budget’s cap as soon as the summer of 2041 – 8.5 years before the minimal time needed for the earth’s atmosphere to at least partially recover.

     And why is tar sand mining such a major source of carbon emissions? It is because the process itself requires a huge amount of water and natural gas (a pollutant in and of itself). The natural gas is used to heat the water to 350 ºC (or 662 ºF) which is then used to separate the bitumen from other sediments. In fact, it takes two barrels of steam to pump back out one barrel of bitumen, notes Biello (4). It also requires 4 tons of tar sands to feel one such barrel, according to Daniel Glick (2). And even then, another four barrels of water (and massive quantities of natural gas) are needed to separate the bitumen from the sediments, according to Glick. This is extremely non-economical and a waste of natural resources. Biello adds that just melting the bitumen “results in two and a half times (some even say 3) times more greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution than surface mining, itself among the highest emitters for any kind of oil production” (4). He adds that “Greater production by this melting method has caused greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta’s tar sands to rise by 16 percent since just 2009, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers” (4).

     I would like to address one more issue, which might show the absurdity of this project, even from the economic tunnel-vision of the proponents. NRDC points out that today Canada produces 1.5 mbd of tar sand oil. It exports 950,000 bpd to the U.S. and uses the remaining 555,000 bpd. Right now, the U.S. can import 2 mbd, and Keystone XL would increase that capacity to 3 mbd. However, if we assume that Canada’s consumption stays constant, it would mean that the pipeline would not work at full capacity until 2025 (when U.S. demand finally catches up with the pipeline’s maximum throughput). Up to this year, because of the structure of pipeline shipping fees – which remains constant regardless of the amount of tar sands pumped through the pipes – the price of oil shipped through them will rise considerably (to compensate for the loses of operating the pipeline at less than full capacity). Thus, dirty, low-grade, corrosive oil will be bought and brought to clueless consumers at premium dollar (3). I can’t help but wonder who stands to profit and who stands to be the sore loser in this deal.

     To conclude, while Keystone XL proponents make various claims of varying credibility, they mostly fall short to close scrutiny. Their promise of hundreds of thousands of jobs doesn’t hold water, when one considers that this data came from the industry itself and its friendly financial assessment groups. They claim they want independence from OPEC, but in reality, by going forward with Keystone XL, they are simply switching their oil suppliers, but aren’t treating the underlying addiction. They won’t look at the alternative forms of greener, more sustainable energy. The “new” safety policies they cite are mainly rehashes of older ones. And TransCanada’s threat to sell to the Chinese is questionable as well, as it would require enormous investments in infrastructure, as well as incur heavy opposition.

     Opponents, on the other hand, show the devastating environmental effects Keystone XL would most certainly bring. They illustrate the serious health issues people can suffer from, by inhaling toxic fumes of bitumen and its byproducts. They show how the mining of these materials and the toxic residue it leaves causes the extinction of forests and animals alike. They warn of possible fresh water contamination that can (and did) occur as a result of pipeline leaks. They show the catastrophic result that tar sands mining can have on global warming. Finally, they even manage to prove the wrongness of the proponents’ economic logic. Due to all of the above, since the Department of State must serve the national interest – it must not approve this project, since it serves no such interest whatsoever.

Works Cited

Biello, David. "Greenhouse Goo." Scientific American 308.7 (2013): 56-61. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.

Brainard, Curtis. “Keystone XL Jobs Bewilder Media.” Columbia Journalism Review. Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 24 Jan 2012. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.

Cattaneo, Claudia. “TransCanada in Eye of the Storm.” Financial Post. Postmedia Network, 8 Sep. 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.

“Corroding Our Democracy: Canada Silences Scientists, Targets Environmentalists in Tar Sands Push.” DemocracyNow.org. Democracy Now!, 24 Sep. 2013. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.

Glick, Daniel. "Tar Sands Trouble." National Wildlife (World Edition) 50.1 (2011): 26-29. GreenFILE. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.

"Keystone XL Pipeline Overview." Congressional Digest 90.10 (2011): 290-295. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.

Koenig, Brian. "Approving the Keystone XL Pipeline." New American (08856540) 27.20 (2011): 15-18. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.

McGowan, Elizabeth. “Keystone XL Pipeline Safety Standards Not as Rigorous as They Seem.” InsideClimate News. David Sassoon, 19 Sep. 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.

“Say No to Tar Sands Pipeline: Proposed Keystone XL Project Would Deliver Dirty Fuel at a High Cost.” Natural Resource Defense Council. Natural Resource Defense Council. Mar 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.

Sorensen, Chris, and Luiza Ch. Savage. "Choking the Oil Sands." Maclean's 124.33/34 (2011): 48-51. Academic Search Complet