The Power of Truth

11/17/2011 09:29 am ET | Updated Jan 17, 2012

The forces fighting us were huge. In addition to Exxon, which had recently posted the largest quarterly profit in history, mammoth entities like the American Petroleum Institute, the Canadian government, and the Chamber of Commerce all stood against us. They were supporting Keystone XL, a proposed 1,700-mile pipeline from Canada to the U.S. that would enable 900,000 barrels of tar sands oil, one of the world's dirtiest forms of energy, to be produced each day. With supporters this powerful, approval of the project seemed so certain that, in mere anticipation of the State Department's green light,TransCanada -- the company that would be building the pipeline -- spent $1.9 billion on pipes, and even began the first stages of construction.

I realized that in order to oppose this pipeline effectively, I would have to form a group. So I reached out to friends, friends of friends, a former neighbor, people I had met at a climate change conference, members of local youth environmental groups, and people to whom I was referred. We would be called Tar Sands Students.

In addition to everyone who was willing to join me, I had on my side the fact that Keystone XL would be exceedingly harmful to the planet and its people and that it did not merit approval. Most of the arguments in support of the pipeline were just myths propagated by the companies with profit at stake.

Consider: one of the most popular pro-pipeline arguments is that if it is not built, Canada would instead export its tar sands oil to other markets, such as China. However, this is by no means a foregone conclusion, as all other routes face difficulties such as insufficient infrastructure. In fact, Alberta's energy minister, a strong proponent of tar sands oil, agrees; he accidentally damaged his case when he warned that if Keystone XL is not built, Canada simply wouldn't be able to produce as much oil. It is conceivable that at some point, Canada could find another export route, but why choose the guaranteed environmental destructiveness of Keystone XL over the possible environmental destructiveness of a future project?

Another argument made by Keystone XL supporters is that the pipeline would lower gas prices. This, too, is incorrect. A crucial attribute of the Keystone XL is that it would extend to the Gulf of Mexico. As such, the oil that the pipeline transports would be put into the world market. Because the Middle East, Russia, South America, and many other regions all produce prodigious amounts of oil, Keystone XL would not affect world prices, especially since those prices are already subject to manipulation by forces such as OPEC. The only place where fuel prices would be affected by Keystone XL is the American Midwest -- where they would rise. This is because the Midwest is currently one of the few regions that tar sands oil can reach, and because of this has an oversupply. Keystone XL would open up tar sands oil to many new markets and would therefore divert it from the American heartland, causing fuel prices there to rise significantly.

More troubling is that ending the oversupply in the Midwest would raise the product's overall market price -- a prime incentive for more companies to enter the business of exploiting tar sands.

The truth behind Keystone XL is that it is a massive gift to corporations that would come at the expense of the world's most vulnerable people. If the pipeline is approved, the 150 million people who are currently at risk of becoming climate refugees would be one step closer to having to flee their homes as a result of the floods, desertification, natural disasters, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, and droughts that climate change causes. Meanwhile, Canada's indigenous people would have their pristine world turned into rubble, Nebraska's farmers would risk having their aquifer polluted, and residents of Port Arthur, Texas would be afflicted with the increased rates of cancer that oil refining brings.

Last week, the State Department announced that final consideration of Keystone XL would be delayed for at least another year as the agency conducts further review. It was a crushing setback for the oil companies that had expected the project to get rubberstamped.

This happened because Americans in every corner of the country came to understand the truth, and made sure that the government would, too. At the White House, thousands protested and purposely faced arrest; along the route, citizens showed up in full force at public hearings; throughout the country, people rallied at dozens of President Obama's public appearances and campaign offices. And in the capital region, concerned students from 20 high schools joined together, and last month, sat down with the Assistant Secretary of State and spent almost an hour telling her what approval of the pipeline would really mean.

Even though the breadth of corporate support for Keystone XL made derailing it seem undoable, the environmental community prevailed. That's because the truth was on our side.