Ride the Line—What One Activist Learned Biking the Keystone XL Route
By Erik Hoffner
Reprinted with permission from Grist.org
Tom Weis, the “renewable rider,” biked the 2,150 miles of the U.S. portion of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline route over two months late this fall, from the U.S./Canada border to Port Arthur, Texas. He steered his “rocket trike” through many small towns along the way, raising awareness, talking to reporters, and recording scores of interviews with a wide variety of people. He’s just returned to his home in Colorado with a good sense of the prevailing opinions of the project in America’s rural West.
Q. Why didn’t you celebrate Obama’s delay of the Keystone XL pipeline back in the fall?
A. I saw nothing to celebrate. Delay doesn’t equal victory. It was disturbing to see environmental leaders, many of whom I consider friends, praising President Obama for his “leadership” and “courage” for what was in fact an act of political cowardice on his part. Kicking the Keystone XL can down the road until after the election was a transparent political ploy to appease his environmental base by throwing them a bone. Since when do we start giving presidents a pass on making tough decisions until after election day? I share Paul Hawken’s view that it is “dangerous” to allow a decision with such huge planetary ramifications to be delayed until political pressure no longer has any sway.
The pipeline fighters I met on the front lines of the Keystone XL Tour of Resistance certainly weren’t celebrating. It was like having the rug pulled out from under you. Just as the pressure was starting to build on the Obama campaign, all the air was let out of the room. This prompted me to write an op-ed for the Huffington Post, Now is the Time to Fight the Keystone Pipeline. Those with the most to lose—the farmers, ranchers, rural families, tribal communities, and fence-line communities living along the proposed pipeline route—will celebrate when this project is actually stopped.
Q. But isn’t TransCanada losing a ton of money from the delay? Doesn’t that doom the project?
A. Sure, they’re losing money, but that won’t stop them. When you have pockets as deep as TransCanada’s, you hire teams of people to create contingency plans for every possible scenario. But don’t just take it from me. Even as President Obama announced the delay, CNNMoney reported TransCanada’s CEO remained confident Keystone XL would ultimately be approved.
Q. What about this new directive from Congress for a 60-day consideration of the pipeline?
A. Aside from the crass political motivations behind it, I actually view the 60-day Keystone XL provision [requiring a presidential decision by Feb. 21] as an opportunity. The Republicans accomplished what the rest of us could not—They forced President Obama to take a stand. We’ll soon see if the president’s original rationale for a 12- to 18-month delay was truthful.
Subsequent statements by the White House and U.S. State Department certainly seem to point to Obama rejecting the pipeline and pinning the blame on Republicans for rushing the review process. But it would be foolish to underestimate the political influence of the oil lobby. Shortly after New Year's, American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard threatened political retribution if Obama does not deliver them Keystone XL.
Those are fightin’ words. But they also give the president a chance to begin driving the narrative of the 2012 election by differentiating himself from Big Oil and their old-world economic views. Little would do more to reinvigorate his presidency than saying “no” to Keystone XL and “yes” to a U.S.-led green industrial revolution and the millions of good-paying jobs it will create. Did you know the green economy has already generated 2.7 million jobs in the U.S., more than everyone employed in the entire fossil-fuel sector?
I’m not a Democrat, or a Republican, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see Obama turning the tables on the oil lobby and his Republican opponent for backing this un-American pipeline scheme. He can start by using his upcoming State of the Union address to spell out to the American people why this foreign energy project violates our national interest, and our values. The preponderance of hard evidence shows this export pipeline may destroy more jobs than it creates, will raise fuel prices, and won’t make America more secure. Keystone XL is a dangerous threat to Americans, and our economy, and is the exact wrong direction for our country.
Q. Can you share one peak experience from your trek?
A. I was totally blown away by the solidarity march and rally we had courtesy of the Lakota Nation. I have never felt so warmly embraced by a community in my life. Rolling into downtown Pine Ridge, S.D., on my rocket trike, I was greeted by dozens of Oglala Sioux tribal members who had taken over the streets. It was a beautiful sight to behold … grandmothers holding banners, a youth drum group singing honor songs, men waving flags, and camo-clad youth providing security. It was an incredibly powerful experience. The horseback solidarity rides with indigenous leaders in Montana and South Dakota were also unforgettable. The Native wisdom of these people fills me with hope.
Q. You taped a lot of interviews on the road. Have a favorite one to share?
A. There were so many profound interviews, it’s hard to pick a favorite, but I was deeply touched by the words of Goldman Environmental Prize winner Hilton Kelley, who spilled his heart out into a poem called “My Toxic Reality.”
Q. Can you generalize about the views on the pipeline of people you’ve met?
A. The more people hear about Keystone XL, the less they like it. Most people I met during the six-state ride knew very little about it, other than the jobs and energy security propaganda they had heard from TransCanada. What struck me the most was how quickly people would turn against it after hearing just a few facts.
Of course, the landowners I met who would be most directly impacted had an almost uniformly negative opinion of the pipeline. Many had been on the receiving end of TransCanada’s bullying tactics and were very angry at how they had been mistreated by this foreign corporation. “Disrespect” is a word I heard a lot.
I discerned no party-line affiliation whatsoever. Keystone XL is bad for America on so many levels, it transcends political party. There’s something in it for everyone to oppose. I met Tea Party activists working side-by-side with environmentalists. I saw powerful alliances of “cowboys and Indians” being formed. By assaulting so many core American values, TransCanada has succeeded in uniting people against the project. What started out as a fight against a pipeline has morphed into a struggle for the future direction of our country, and world.
Q. What happened when you reached your destination in Texas?
A. After 2,150 miles of pedaling, the ride ended with a press conference in the shadow of polluting smokestacks at a playground in Port Arthur, Texas. I was joined by local resident Hilton Kelley. I chose the West Side of Port Arthur because the air of the people living in this fence-line community would be further poisoned by emissions from refining toxic tar-sands oil. I wanted to draw attention to the plight of the babies and elderly living in this community who are already suffering enough.
Going forward, the clock is ticking on a 60-day window for President Obama to make a “national interest” determination on this foreign pipeline scheme. Every day between now and Feb. 21 is critical. The president needs to hear from voters that if he rejects Keystone XL, and rolls out a green energy plan to put America back to work leading a worldwide green industrial revolution, the American people will have his back. We can turn the Rust Belt into the “Green Belt” by building the solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars needed to power the 21st century. It’s time for a green energy moon shot for America.
Erik Hoffner works for Orion magazine and is also a freelance photographer and writer whose recent investigative report for Yale Environment 360 on unsustainable logging in Sweden was picked up by National Geographic News Watch. See images from Sweden and links to those stories here.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>