“No Man Was An Island” in Grand Island, Nebraska
Grand Island, Nebraska: Last Thursday, this small city was the site of the U.S. State Department’s one and only public hearing about the Keystone XL pipeline during its 45-day public comment period on the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement.
I was among more than a thousand people who braved a major snowstorm the night before and then a blizzard that morning–a blizzard that made standing in line for an opportunity to testify a major endurance test for KXL supporters and opponents alike. While I was standing in that line, my camera became so cold and damp that it refused to shoot. It wouldn’t even power up.
But we KXL opponents were certainly powered up! Once inside the arena, most of us were easy to identify, wearing red and white “pipeline fighter” t-shirts and sporting black “pipeline fighter” armbands. As the epic hearing progressed through the afternoon and late into the evening, hundreds of citizens stood before a three-person State Department panel to testify. KXL opponents outnumbered supporters by a huge margin, perhaps 12 to 1 (or more). They were a very diverse lot: high schoolers, senior citizens, tribal leaders, environmentalists, clergypeople, landowners, farmers, ranchers, scientists, educators–people from around the country, but most especially from the midwest, for good reason, since the KXL would be built through the heartland.
Particularly striking to me were testimonies offered by tribal leaders reciting a long list of government failures to honor treaty obligations and other binding commitments; by citizens from Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Mayflower, Arkansas, where major tar sands oil spills may never be truly “cleaned up,” despite Big Oil’s promises; and by a former TransCanada employee, fired for whistleblowing about the company’s routine and blatant noncompliance with safety regulations. But the opposition as a whole was downright impressive. Its assorted members had so mustered their facts and their arguments and their stories and their passions that they made the case against the pipeline seem like a no-brainer. (Which of course it is, to some of us.)
I listened carefully to supporters of the pipeline. They were not only far fewer in number but much less diverse. They generally belonged to two categories of people: folks involved in the oil industry (e.g., TransCanada executives, representatives of labor unions involved in pipeline construction) and folks involved in big business (e.g., members of chambers of commerce). Nearly always these folks read their statements rather than speaking from their hearts. And their talking points were both predictable and consistent, as if taken straight out of the TransCanada playbook. We’ve been hearing the same talking points in the media for years now, despite all the solid evidence disputing them. You can probably name them: jobs, energy security and independence, economic development…
Whenever a KXL supporter began to testify, we opponents held our black armbands up in silent protest. By contrast, whenever a KXL opponent began to testify, we stood with them in solidarity. That hadn’t been the plan, going in. According to the plan, we were only supposed to defy the first TransCanada speaker, and only supposed to stand in solidarity with the first KXL opponent–Randy Thompson, the Republican rancher who with two other Nebraskan landowners is suing state officials over the pipeline. Regardless of the plan, however, we in the opposition began spontaneously to greet every speaker with a show of either defiance or support. We did this throughout roughly 12 hours of testimony, without quitting. Red and white shirts would rise up to express respect and gratitude and agreement. Black armbands would be held up to express heartfelt dissent and resistance.
Most of us in the KXL opposition were, I sensed, genuinely concerned about the union laborers who were supporting the project out of their legitimate concern for future employment. We were distressed that laborers in one industry (e.g., construction) were being pitted against those in another (e.g., agriculture). A remarkable number of KXL opponents tried to reach out to the union members while testifying, conveying empathy, insisting on the nation’s ability to create good jobs apart from bad projects, and reminding them that we are fighting for the future of their children and grandchildren as well as our own. Unfortunately, by the time most of these statements were made, many of the union members had left the premises. Their workday had ended, and they wouldn’t (it seemed) be paid overtime for remaining in their seats until the hearing’s conclusion.
John Donne wrote long ago that “No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.” In Grand Island last Thursday, I witnessed this same view being expressed over and over again, in different ways, by KXL opponents. I was proud to be among them. We get the truth of Donne’s words, and we need to help our compatriots and our governments to get it too.
What is good for some of us is bound up with what is good for all of us–no matter who we are, no matter where we live. We are all “a part of the main,” and because KXL is a threat to the main, together we pledge to resist, for as long as it takes to overcome it.