I did not travel to Washington D.C. a few weeks ago to protest the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in front of the White House—and get arrested—as some of my colleagues and so many other brave Americans did. But I am planning to speak out against the pipeline at the upcoming State Department hearing to be held in Austin, Texas, on September 28th.
The first time I testified at a public hearing was almost exactly one year ago, at a hearing in Dallas to solicit public input on the EPA’s new proposed regulations on coal ash. I was pretty nervous, having never done that kind of thing before. In my imagination, it would be something like the trial scenes from Harry Potter—there’d be an imposing panel seated far above and frowning down on me, with the chill of dementors emanating from their hiding place in a side-room…. OK, it’s possible I let my imagination run away from me a little.
As it turned out, it wasn’t that bad. The hearing was in one of those large, overly air-conditioned conference rooms at a downtown hotel. A panel of four people sat up front at a slightly raised table, and those of us who had come to testify sat in neatly arranged rows of chairs, forming the audience. We were called up, one by one, to stand at the microphone and give our three-minute prepared speeches. And that was it. My testimony in support of more stringent regulations on coal ash was entered into the record, and I felt good about that.
For the rest of the afternoon, I listened to the testimony of others. There were some industry representatives, asking that the proposed regulations be made weaker. Mostly, though, the speakers were regular people whose lives had been negatively impacted in some way by coal ash pollution. It seemed like the whole town of Bokoshe, Oklahoma was there—the coal ash dumps near their town have caused cancer rates to skyrocket. Later, I gathered with them, other environmental advocates and religious leaders to learn more about their town and to participate in a prayer service. The need for support and healing in that room was palpable.
For the upcoming State Department hearing in Austin on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, I don’t expect to see residents of Bokoshe, Oklahoma. That’s because the Bokoshe, Oklahomas of this pipeline haven’t been created yet—at least, not in our country. Indigenous populations in Canada, on the other hand, have been dealing with the damaging effects of tar sands mining for years now.
The decision about whether or not to build the Keystone XL pipeline is not about whether or not we should create new, American jobs or reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Of course we should create new, American jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. But building this pipeline is not the way. We can invest in energy-efficiency programs and clean, renewable sources of energy to accomplish those goals. In this decision, larger moral and religious concerns must be considered. (For my thoughts about why religious leaders should bring the wisdom of their traditions into the public conversation, please read a previous post: “Separation of Church and State? Why Religious Voices Matter.”)
The U.S. already creates the bulk of demand for tar sands mining in Canada. Building this pipeline will implicate us long-term in the continued clear-cutting of the boreal forests, the creation of toxic pools and runoff that kill wildlife and make people sick, and the destruction of North America’s most important natural carbon sequestration system. In addition, it will commit us—and the rest of the world—to a much warmer climate and a planet that is far less hospitable to human and all other life.
The Jewish tradition—and every other religious tradition with which I’m familiar—is pretty clear in its teachings about our responsibility to care for the planet, for each other, and to consider the effects of our actions on future generations. When I speak at the hearing, I intend to lift up these teachings and concerns.
This time around, I am not so nervous about the process of testifying. It’s one of the ways that we, as citizens of the United States, are invited to participate in the decision-making process. There are seven other hearing locations in five other states and in Washington, D.C., in case you’d like to participate. Also, you can submit comments online. I wonder what testimony you’d give?