03/11/2013 06:06 pm ET Updated May 11, 2013

Latina Activist Stands up to an Industry Sick With Greed


Yudith Nieto has no time to waste. And like so many other young people like her, she's no longer waiting for a society that insists on postponing confronting the problem that will define her and future generations: climate disruption.

That's why Yudith -- a native Mexican and tireless environmental justice fighter -- is on the vanguard of the fight against climate change and the oil industry that every day bombards her community with eight known carcinogens. She grew up and lives in Manchester, the most polluted barrio in Houston, one of the country's most polluted cities.

Manchester -- which is predominantly Latino -- also has the bad fortune to be the most likely candidate to host the terminal of the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that threatens to move tar sands oil -- the dirtiest on the planet -- from Alberta, Canada, to Yudith's barrio.

"We must find the strength to empower each other to face the environmental racism we are living under," says Yudith, who, along with dozens of other activists was arrested during a Feb. 13 civil disobedience protest against Keystone XL in front of the White House.

"I decided to show my solidarity and support to all of those who stand in resistance to the KXL pipeline, both at the extraction and refining points," she says. "I also believe it will help me to advocate for my community and help amplify their voices, which have been so long ignored."

The pipeline -- a project that must be first approved by President Obama -- would transport millions of barrels of a type of crude that contains 20 percent more carbon than the conventional kind. Scientists have warned that if this project were completed, it would mean game over for the planet's climate.

The State Department, in a deeply flawed report, recently stated that the pipeline's environmental impact would be unsubstantial, even though it acknowledged the extraordinary toxic nature of tar sand oil.

What the report fails to state, however, is the scandalous fact that critical parts of it were completed by firms with close ties to the oil industry, including ExxonMobil, BP and Koch Industries, which is deeply involved in both the production and refining of Canadian tar sand oil.

"These skeptics need to realize that the voice of the people will rise above all the noise created by their deceit and ignorance," warns Yudith. "It is immoral and severely irrational to deny the law of causality and think that our actions do not have any serious consequences."

This boondoggle would benefit only the oil industry. Ninety percent of the transported crude is destined for exports, its impact on gas prices at the pump would be insignificant and the vast majority of the jobs it would create would be temporary.

And to top it all off, the terminal of this serpent of greed would be built in Yudith's barrio, which already is burdened with the country's largest concentration of refineries and petrochemical plants. According to a study by the City of Houston, the chances of contracting leukemia within a radius of two miles of the Houston ship channel, which is in Manchester, are a mind-blowing 56 percent.

But Big Oil's immense power and decades of environmental injustices suffered by her community have failed to diminish Yudith's resolve.

"I do believe that this is a historic opportunity to make our society more prosperous and just," she concludes. "Love and compassion toward each other are the most valuable components and a necessity if we want to save our civilization."

Fortunately for all of us, young people like Yudith Nieto are at the vanguard of the fight against an oil industry sick with greed.