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Spiritual Resistance in the “Fossil Fuel” Capital of the World

Today, Turning Wheel interviews two activists on the front lines of the Houston Tar Sands Blockade. Houston is of the two end point destinations for the Keystone XL Pipeline. It also is the headquarters of numerous oil and gas multinationals, including Halliburton and Phillips 66. As such, Houston offers a unique opportunity to both resist the tar sands, and also work to transform America’s oil and gas industry, if that’s possible.

Turning Wheel Media: Can you tell us a little bit about your backgrounds?

Stephanie Thomas: I’m a geologist by training and I spent my time in graduate school researching ancient climate and environments. My dissertation work focused on the Late Permian and Early Triassic Periods. During graduate school, I was recruited by a major oil and gas company, and I’ve spent three years working for them.  Since graduate school, I have become increasingly passionate about yoga, meditation, and Buddhism.  I fell in love with the work of Joanna Macy, which led me on a trip to Upaya Zen Center to attend one of her workshops.  And there, the love grew more and more.  I signed up to pursue environmental chaplaincy at Upaya.  I started my work with the Keystone XL Pipeline Resistance movement during the national week of action in March by offering a yoga class to activists.  I’ve continued that by teaching regular “Self-Care for Activists and Other Busy People” classes.  I’m currently working with my friend Jeff on developing and fundraising for a big television ad campaign to debut mid- to late fall to bring awareness to the issues surrounding the Keystone XL Pipeline. 

Benjamin Craft-Rendon: I’m 35, was born at home in Houston, TX, and raised in a nontraditional family unit. I am a lifelong Unitarian Universalist who doesn’t believe that divinity is required to find sacredness. I’ve participated in political organizing, death penalty abolition and other social justice issues since my early teens. I own a small business, but have been intentionally restructuring my availability so I have more time for activism & organizing.

Turning Wheel Media: There are a myriad of issues to focus on. Why the tar sands and XLPipeline?

Stephanie Thomas: The tar sands represent a form of unconventional energy that is energy-intensive to produce and is environmentally destructive in a way that surpasses the potential destruction of conventional oil and gas development.  I see the environmental devastation happening in three major areas: at the source of the tar sands, in Alberta, Canada; along the pipeline route; and in Texas and elsewhere where the tar sands will be refined.

Buddhist Peace Fellowship highlighted some striking before-and-after photographs of the boreal forests in Canada.  The tailing ponds affect surface waters, and especially given all of the flooding in Alberta this summer, extraction will cause widespread environmental and health impacts. The Keystone XL Pipeline route still crosses sensitive aquifers and places where many people make a living off the land.  Because of the large sand fraction associated with the bitumen, pipeline corrosion is inevitable.  The massive oil spill in Mayflower, Arkansas, is one example of pipeline failure.  Many more examples are already out there that show repeatedly the challenges in cleaning up not only the tar sands but also the chemicals mixed with them that are necessary in order to create a crude-like viscosity so that the material can flow.  The higher pressures required to carry the diluted bitumen (dilbit) along the path of the Keystone XL Pipeline spell out disaster.  The refining of the tar sands is also an issue, and will have a negative impact on air quality in Texas and wherever else the tar sands are processed.   

One thing that has come up for me lately is the impact on wildlife.  We humans can create tailing ponds or surface ponds for industry wastewater and post a sign with a skull and crossbones that says, “Do not consume.”  Assuming literacy, most of us will acknowledge the sign and heed the warning.  But animals do not have that luxury of distinguishing drinkable water from chemical-laden waste.  I see tar sands development and potential spills as infringing on the rights of all beings to have access to clean, healthy water.  Plants and animals can’t sue and find recompense for their losses.  As for human beings who might pursue legal action and win, they will never regain what they lost.  Healing can take place, but the forests and the lakes and rivers are forever changed.          

And I have yet to mention the issue of global warming.  To me, the decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline represents a possibility for us to change our business-as-usual policy and create a different outcome, not based on economic fear but one based in compassion and concern for our mutual survival.

Benjamin Craft-Rendon: I’m focused here because this is a place where thinking globally and locally are one. In Houston, social justice work inevitably leads to environmental justice work, and the entire tar sands project is a nightmare of environmental racism. Achieving the stated production goals of the Athabascan tar sands projects requires destroying the ancestral homelands of the Fort McKay First Nation, a clear violation of Canada’s 1899 Treaty 8. In the meanwhile, tar sands refining is already threatening the local inhabitants, killing local wildlife, and polluting a major freshwater source. This doesn’t even get into the climate change impacts of tar sands extraction, which starts with clear cutting a forest the size of Florida, then continues by locking in decades more of carbon release.

Meanwhile, the Keystone XL pipeline is the perfect example of how the fossil fuel industry has rigged the system to make catastrophic climate change inevitable. KXL is needed to keep tar sands crude profitable, and KXL is only feasible due to the power of fossil fuel lobbying. From a local to national level, TransCanada has had to subvert everything from environmental reviews to eminent domain laws so it can build a pipeline that burns one fossil fuel just to extract another. How can I not act when such a project comes to my home town?

 Turning Wheel Media: What would you say is unique about Houston as a site of KXL/tar sands resistance?

Stephanie Thomas: Two things stand out for me: (1) Houston is the hub of the oil and gas industry, and (2) the tar sands refining will happen in Houston, creating poorer air quality particularly in lower income, largely Hispanic communities.  Due its status as energy capital of the world, there is a lot of resistance to the resistance.  The Houston economy is fueled by the oil and gas industry, and most jobs in O&G pay well.  Even for people who are mostly onboard with the idea of Keystone not being the way to go, not many like the idea of giving up a good paycheck because they have families to support, etc.  Each act of resistance challenges a way of living that many people are all too keen not to challenge.  And each act of resistance can plant seeds of hope for a different future and a different vision of Houston: a city of sustainability, equality, and justice. 

Benjamin Craft-Rendon: For one thing, Houston is one of the two destination points for KXL (the other is Port Arthur), so even when TransCanada isn’t cutting through our yards, they’re threatening our neighbourhoods. This local aspect, combined with the unique risks of tar sands dilbet, has helped get even individuals who’ve been part of the fossil fuel industry to speak out.

Secondly, because Houston is a refining destination, we’ve been able to work with existing environmental justice groups to bring members of fence-line communities into the #NoKXL struggle. If the impact on the people living in refining sacrifice zones was ever taken into account, that alone would put an end to these extreme extraction & refining projects.

Finally, Houston is a town that proclaims itself the “[Fossil fuel] Energy Capital of the World”. Proving that a project as massive as KXL can be stopped would shatter the illusion of inevitability in the city where the status quo is the most destructive. Even the delays we’ve already accomplished were considered impossible when we began. These victories are how you build a movement.

Turning Wheel Media: Are folks in Houston organizing in intersectional ways – for instance, with indigenous communities resisting KXL, or with oil industry workers? If yes, how so? If not, what do you think needs to happen to make that part of the overall strategy?

Stephanie Thomas: Certainly KXL Resistance in Texas has brought together people from many backgrounds and there is a movement in Houston to continue to join together many groups of people to resist.  I’m just now becoming familiar with all of the groups, so I am still learning how all these groups are coming together.

As far as intersecting with oil industry workers – that’s a great question about how to make that part of the overall strategy, and one that rightfully requires deep consideration considering oil and gas is one of the major economic forces of Houston and many people are connected in one way or another to the industry.  Right now, I mostly see former industry workers involved in KXL Resistance.  I sometimes hear industry employees indicate that this is something they oppose, but taking a stand is more challenging if people do not want to be seen as having a conflict of interest.  I don’t have an answer to this yet – how to make this part of the strategy – but I know that there is a need for healing within the industry, and space for that healing will need to be created to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline, but also to progress beyond fossil fuels.

Benjamin Craft-Rendon: While there’s more we need to do to grow our intersectional organizing, we already work with the local Idle No More chapter and refinery area community groups to help connect a culture of resistance to these projects. We recently helped organize & staff a community health festival where people could relax while filling out health impact surveys, sign-up to take part in an air monitoring study, and learn how to register air pollution complaints with the city.

We have not forged relationships with any oil industry worker groups, but have participated in organizing to improve healthcare access in Houston and begun connecting with the community coalition working against the expansion of the Port of Houston- an expansion driven by expected huge supplies of tar sands crude from the KXL.

Turning Wheel Media: How do you see your spirituality impacting the activist work you do? How does it support or enhance your involvement in the KXL resistance, and have you faced any challenges or difficulties as a result of being spiritually inclined?

Stephanie Thomas: In college, I had a stint as an activist.  I picketed and leafleted on behalf of causes that resonated with me—environmental issues and animal rights.  But an ungrounded spirituality and my own unresolved trauma made it challenging for me to continue the work at that time.  My belief now is that healing takes place iteratively.  I work on myself some, and that allows me to do the work in the world.  As I do the work out in the world, I may need to come back and do more work inside.  It goes back and forth.

When I gave up activism, I had a lot of judgment toward myself.  When I entered the industry, I continued to have a lot of judgment toward myself.  My biggest spiritual practice has been softening that judgment, finding those edges of resistance, and meeting them with compassion and empathy.  I can only give what I can give, no more or no less, so what is the benefit in judging it?  When I move beyond that judgment, only then can I see the lessons that I am offered at each moment.

I don’t believe anything can be solved with regard to the Keystone XL Pipeline or fossil fuels by maintaining a dualistic attitude.  As I think toward my colleagues in the industry and imagine what the world will be like post-oil, I cannot help but feel concern for their livelihood.  Everyone’s needs are valid.  The pipeline workers, the First People’s, the geologists, landmen, and engineers, the landowners in East Texas who lost their land through eminent domain, the people of Manchester living in the shadow of the refineries, all creatures from Alberta to Texas and beyond.  What guides my work with the Keystone XL Pipeline is my mission to plant seeds of compassion for myself, for others, and for the entire planet.

Benjamin Craft-Rendon: My spiritual beliefs are what led me to realize that focusing on climate justice, and hence the KXL struggle, needed to be the primary concern of my life. My faith in the value of non-violent resistance is what sustained me even in the face of being pepper sprayed & tazed. My practices of meditation have been what re-centers me after days of hard work for little tangible result. My belief in the power of building communities informs how I organize, and what strategic choices I make.

My spiritual values have made me have to challenge an otherwise good ally’s unexamined bias & unthinking errors in categorical thinking. I have to balance the fierce urgency of the moment with the need to respect the inherent value of all people. We’re forced to worry about the consequences to communities even though profit-driven companies won’t, and that does limit my planning from time to time. 

 Turning Wheel Media: The Buddhist teachings place a lot of emphasis on interconnectedness. In your organizing around KXL / Tar Sands, how have you supported your fellow activists to connect climate justice to other issues, particularly ones that might normally be considered to be about race, class, gender, sexuality, or ableism?

Stephanie Thomas: Once, I was seated next to a prominent petroleum geologist during a dinner for students and young professionals at a professional meeting.  He regaled us with stories, and he began discussing his response to the environmental movement by stating, with a mocking tone and a dash of pride, “I rape the earth.” Although no one has ever repeated those words to me, I’ve heard echoes of that during my tenure in industry.  That statement sticks out to me not only as a representation of the worst expression of what the oil industry does, but also an unspoken core belief of industrial capitalism: the world is ours for the taking through violence and without accountability.

As I’ve stepped back into the activist community, I’m heartened to be surrounded by people who believe in community and in cooperation.  I interact with people who want to talk about sexuality and gender without shame and without shaming.  Race and class can be openly discussed.  Violence in any form is not tolerated, and compassion rather than competition is the motivating force. The concept of value is key here.  This movement is not only about stopping the pipeline, but it is about knowing that we as a society are worth something more than dirty dilbit.  We are worth clean water and clean air.  We are worth healing the walls of shame that we have built around ourselves, and we are worth having a future.  And we are all in this together.     

Benjamin Craft-Rendon: Tar Sands Blockade meetings make sure to start by asking people for their preferred personal pronoun. Every Houston organizing meeting has met in what we strive to hold as anti-oppression safe space, and we work to educate one another through the work required to counter the oppressive systems we all live enmeshed within. The conditions that fence-line communities are in are the explicit results of race & class discrimination. Politically marginalized groups are the ones that get stuck with the deadly waste, while wealthier & whiter neighborhoods refuse to either integrate or allow for the creation of low coast housing. The one public comment session on KXL that took place in Texas required being able to afford to: travel to Port Arthur, be present during working hours, able to stay standing or seated for hours to be able to speak. The health impacts of tar sands refining are magnified by Texas’ refusal to expand Medicare coverage. Pipeline routes are placed again & again through Native lands and people of color’s homes.

 Turning Wheel Media: How can folks support your efforts, and what do you think will be needed to stop the XL pipeline, and other projects like it?

Stephanie Thomas: I encourage everyone to help out how they can.  You can take Credo Action’s Pledge of Resistance, find and join other groups and actions in your area.  Get arrested.  If you aren’t comfortable getting arrested, help activists with bail money or bake them cookies.       

I also encourage everyone to take a stand to let Obama know that the Pipeline is an unacceptable risk to the American people by calling and writing.  And please, please talk about the pipeline.  Tell your friends, neighbors, and family members about it.  Not everyone is informed.  Some people believe this will create jobs and will be a boon for the economy, but the reality is that the pipeline will create less than 50 permanent jobs.  If this is a new subject for you, please seek out information and educate yourself.  I also encourage you all to sit and dedicate the merit of your practice to this cause.    

Benjamin Craft-Rendon: People can follow us on social media, sign up for a Pledge to Resist &/or 350 Fearless Summer event, donate towards legal expense fund, ask their social clubs & faith communities to divest from tar sands.

*Images from the Houston Tar Sands Blockade Facebook page.

Comments (1)

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