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Tony Horwitz Travels the Keystone XL Route


Few recent Harvard Magazine articles have attracted more passionate, deeply polarized letters than “The Keystone XL Pipeline,” a Forum opinion essay by Michael B. McElroy, Butler professor of environmental studies (November-December 2013; the exchange of letters continues in the forthcoming March-April issue). Opponents of the pipeline write in sometimes apocalyptic language about looming climate-change catastrophe; proponents cite the market for energy, the inevitability of producing oil from the Canadian sands, and that country’s sovereignty.

Turning from the policymaking and regulatory decisions that take place in Washington, D.C., Tony Horwitz, a 2005-2006 Radcliffe Institute Fellow and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist known for his deft road-trip reports (Confederates in the Attic, Blue Latitudes, Baghdad without a Map, etc.), has just released Boom, an account of his travels last autumn along the proposed pipeline route, from Alberta to Kansas. (A Byliner Original, the work is available from, Amazon, iTunes, and other online sources.)  ~The Editors


Tony Horwitz both sees and listens as he makes his way among the hardworking people on the wide and frigid plains and prairies—in the case of oil-field crews, often long flights from their families—who are lonely for companionship, and who bring strikingly different perspectives to the issue of environmental impact, climate change, and the sanctity of their land. Of the city in the center of the oil-sands territory, he writes:

Fort McMurray isn’t simply a company town; it is the hub of an industrial mini-state. At the town’s airport, companies have their own check-in desks, security, chartered 737s, and “site shuttles” to carry employees directly to work camps. Companies also maintain their own airstrips, deep in the boreal forest, to fly workers in and out of remote locations. For those traveling by road, highway signs flag the names and distances to major oil sites as if they’re full-fledged towns, which in a sense they are. Some company-run camps house eight thousand workers.

 Cresting a bluff north of town for his first view of the mining district, he observes:

Tearing minerals from the earth is never pretty, whether it’s strip-mining Appalachian mountains for coal, yanking copper out of craters in Arizona, or sucking oil from the desert of the Persian Gulf—all places I’d visited. Even so, I’d never seen a man-mauled landscape quite so awesome and eerie as the oil sands.

You couldn’t even call it a landscape, because there was almost no trace of land around the mines. The earth had been peeled of its skin. There were no trees in what had once been a forest, and no sign of the wet, peaty “muskeg” that once covered most of the area. The bogs had been drained and the muskeg rolled up like so much carpet. The earth had also been liberated of “overburden,” the industry term for soil, stone, and anything else, to a depth of about 230 feet.

And this was just prep work for the real surgery: gouging out the oil sand beneath.

Heading south, as the first snows arrived near Halloween, “I felt as though I was driving across a sugar-dusted pancake.” He encountered ranchers and farmers eager to welcome the pipeline across their property, for the jobs and tax revenues it would bring, and those more cautious. To his surprise, the residents of a Hutterite community in Montana (“a rare vestige of almost pure communism. Hutterites’ faith and agrarian ways might not fit Marx’s industrial, anti-religious vision. But in other respects, I imagined Karl would be impressed—if startled, like me, to discover radical pacifists and communitarians thriving in one of the most conservative, gun-loving corners of the capitalistic U.S.A.”) strongly  favor Keystone XL and its promised revenues.

During a digression beyond Williston, North Dakota—center of the booming Bakken oil field, and the maladies that come with a natural-resources boom (where an oil-field worker boasted about his 8-by-18-foot private cabin, far better than the “man camps” where “Guys joke that it’s like living in a jail cell, and a lot of them are speaking from experience”)—Horwitz meets a farming family whose land suffered a huge oil spill from a pipeline. As Patty Jensen e-mailed him months later, while the clean-up continued, “I love the area we live in—it is absolutely beautiful in its way. I don’t want that statement to turn into ‘It was absolutely beautiful.’” On the other hand, an oil-field worker told him that having grown up in a double-wide trailer, “I have a mission to keep my kids out of a house on wheels. I came up that way, and I want better for them.”

Having survived rounds of “Vegas Bombs” (a mixture of peach schnapps and Red Bull), Horwitz ultimately made his way to South Dakota (“If you reach a place and think, Hmm, should I get gas here before driving on? the answer is yes”) and crossed Harding Country (2,500 square miles, 1,255 people), where he met both ardent proponents of the pipeline and a rancher who had become a sharp critic. In a classroom with a poster illustrating cuts of beef, he heard Future Farmers of America students present perhaps the most eloquent, informed arguments for and against the pipeline in his entire multithousand-mile trip.

And then, in Holt County, Nebraska (82 percent of voters chose “a candidate other than Obama in the last election”), where the Ogallala Aquifer figures in some of the fiercest local opposition to the pipeline (and has caused it to be rerouted in some places), he encountered the strangest political alignment Keystone has wrought: the CIA (Cowboy Indian Alliance) against the pipeline. At a CIA spiritual camp, he recounts a story from Karen Little Thunder, a Sioux:

She said one rancher exclaimed about TransCanada, “They’re taking our land!” Then he blushed before adding, “I guess that’s what happened to you. Now it’s happening to us.” For Native Americans, she added, “it’s a relief to have allies after struggling so long on our own and experiencing more losses than gains.”

For most of the people Horwitz met, climate change is a distant abstraction. Jobs, taxes, and the integrity of long-settled land loom much larger. The wind farms he saw in Nebraska, and the sharp debate among students whose views are not necessarily their parents’, suggest to him some promising avenues away from dependence on fossil fuels. As he left the CIA gathering to head home, he writes:

I felt moved by this unlikely minyan of cowboys and Indians, offering thanks and prayers at sundown on a Friday night in a cold pasture in northern Nebraska.

As I headed off in the dark, for a seven-hour drive to the airport, I also felt an unexpected optimism piercing the gloom and fatalism that had afflicted much of my trip. At some juncture early in 2014, a final judgment on the XL would rain down from Washington. Even if the decision went against TransCanada, I doubted it would do much to slow the torrent of crude from Alberta and the Bakken. And this was just part of the equation. New sources of oil and gas were being drilled and fracked all across the continent. The United States had recently become a net exporter of refined petroleum products and was poised to be the world’s largest oil producer—an energy powerhouse, with all sorts of consequences for the economy and foreign policy that were hard to predict.

The impact on the earth and atmosphere seemed easier to envision. All the oil I’d seen being extracted and fed into pipes or loaded onto railcars or spilled across farmland didn’t fill me with hope. But many of the people I’d met did, from the freethinking rancher in Alberta to the Future Farmers of America in Buffalo to the wind-farm workers and the cowboys and Indians in Nebraska. If it achieved nothing else, the fight over the XL had focused attention and debate on energy and the environment and forced the fossil-fuels industry to take notice.

Americans were often mindless consumers. But as I’d seen, they could also be inquisitive, innovative, quick to convert, and willing, when pressed, to stand up and fight. Which made me feel that maybe, just maybe, we’d find our way out of this energy maze after all.

In the meantime, as his reporting reminds readers, there are real people, with sharply different perspectives, attached to the seemingly abstract, remote debates about energy consumption and policy, the climate, and international trade.

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