Pipe dream: SU, SUNY-ESF students join oil pipeline protest

Courtesy of Ella Mendonsa

Students hold up their handmade signs outside of the White House while they peacefully protested the Keystone XL pipeline during the weekend.

A group of Syracuse University students transformed into activists this past weekend.

Three cars packed full of students made the 375 mile drive to Washington, D.C. to join a peaceful protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline on Saturday. That night, they slept on the floor of a church provided by, an international environmental organization.

The next day, the Syracuse University and State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry students joined a group of 1,200 students outside of the White House gates where they vocalized their concerns with the Keystone XL Pipeline. Some students were so impassioned that they lost their voices.

The Keystone XL Pipeline is a plan to extend oil pipelines owned by TransCanada from the tar sands in Northern Canada to the Gulf Coast. The Canadian government and oil companies are waiting for approval from the U.S. government and President Barack Obama, who is reviewing the proposal after TransCanada changed the route of the pipeline, according to a Feb. 4 Washington Post article.

David Oster, a senior political science and geography major, was the campus point person at SU. He helped organize students to attend the protest hosted by XL Dissent, a national organization of youth activists.

“Seeing so many people out there united for one cause was amazing,” Oster said. “It was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had.”

Outside of the White House, it was a sea of signs: SU students held homemade signs that read ‘WE>OIL,” “We The People Do Not Approve” and “Stop Your Dirty Addiction,” while a banner read, “Obama: Stop the Pipeline or the People Will.”

Three hundred ninety-eight people were arrested for chaining themselves to the White House gates, though none of them were SU students, said Ella Mendonsa, a junior political science and public policy major. It was possibly one of the largest youth protests in this generation, she added.

The purpose of the protest, according to XL Dissent’s website, was to hold Obama accountable for a promise he made in a speech at Georgetown University last July to review the Keystone XL pipeline’s effect on climate change.

In recent years, Obama’s rhetoric has shifted to a desire to fight climate change in the U.S., Mendonsa said.

She added that Obama’s Georgetown speech was one of the motivations behind the creation of SU’s divestment campaign.

“He actually gave us this idea that we should be divesting on college campuses, so it’s almost hypocritical, we feel, that he would let this pass after giving us the idea that as students we should be fighting climate change,” Mendonsa said.

The pipeline symbolizes the U.S. government’s investment in destructive energy sources such as tar sands over sustainable options, Oster said.

“This is one of the most important issues,” he said. “I’m really pissed about it and it’s about time I took action.”

Divest SU and ESF and Students of Sustainability, two groups on SU’s campus that publicly oppose the Keystone XL Pipeline, decided to join XL Dissent in rallying against the proposal.

The divestment campaign focuses on having the university withdraw its investment from fossil fuel companies so the oil companies are not financially or morally supported, said Emma Edwards, a junior geography and policy studies major.

Edwards, a member of Divest SU and ESF, said if more students are aware of the potential issues caused by the pipeline, there will be more of a sentiment against fossil fuel companies that aren’t concerned with the future.

Joe Sandford, a senior history major who is involved in Divest SU and ESF, described the protest as “the right thing to do.”

“This is a big issue that impacts a lot of people,” Sandford said. “Protesting is a way to show the country, the politicians and policy leaders that students care about their future.”

If Obama approves the pipeline, it will show the U.S. accepts fossil fuels as a part of everyday life, Sandford said.

“This decision will show the world where we stand,” he said. “We need to the send the message that we are moving forward.”

The Keystone XL pipeline presents numerous obvious environmental problems, said Miles Marcotte, a freshman geography major. For this reason, he felt compelled to join the protest.

“First of all, the method of extraction is destructive to the lands in Canada. They will be completely ravaged,” he said. “Oil is not renewable and will run out eventually. It makes no sense to keep using it, especially when we are aware of how harmful it is to the environment.”

Marcotte said a government investment in renewable energy projects could create just as many jobs.

Oster said the development of the Keystone XL pipeline will only increase the U.S.’s role in producing fossil fuels, which is counterproductive to the climate change movement.

“I think that in order for the United States to come out and be a leader in sustainability, we have to say no to this sort of reinvestment in fossil fuel infrastructure and sort of reorient ourselves towards renewable energy,” Oster said.

Mendonsa added that the pipeline will disturb a lot of important farmland as the pipeline’s development progresses through the Midwest, especially in Nebraska.

She said she met some kids and adults from Nebraska who were “furious” about the pipeline’s potential effects on their home state.

The Keystone XL pipeline would travel through the aquifer in Nebraska, which is an “incredible source of water for ranchers and farmers in the Midwest,” said Bob Wilson, a geography professor at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

If the pipeline ruptured, it could contaminate the U.S.’s most important underground source of water, he said.

Oster added that the pipeline plans to go through a lot of native lands in Canada, and it will disproportionately affect low-income populations in the U.S.

“It’s fundamentally a human rights issue too,” Oster said.

Oster said he hopes that the protest will get substantial media coverage both nationally and on SU’s campus.

“There is a huge movement going on nationwide and I would like to see more environmental activism on campus,” he said. “I hope students see this and get inspired to act on it.”

Mendonsa added that members of the SU divestment campaign plan to attend another protest against the Keystone XL pipeline in April.

“Sometimes as students, we think what we do isn’t important, but that’s completely false,” Mendonsa said. “We can try to say we want to stay out of politics, but everything we do is political. When there is so much money involved in politics now, you can’t just vote. You have to go out and be a part of the political process.”


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