Unless you’ve been living in a hole for the past five years, you’ve heard about the controversy over the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Ken Ilgunas happened to be living in a hole —or what he refers to as “the coldest, darkest, dreariest place on earth”—a town called Deadhorse, Alaska. But even Ken had heard about the Keystone XL. On November 11 and 12, Ken came to Harvard to talk about his decision to hike along the planned path for the pipeline; a decision that landed him in the New York Times, Wallstreet Journal, Fox Radio Show, CBS, and the Leno Show.  

Ken’s story was compelling. Even more compelling, as he noted himself, was the fact that so many people became interested. Why is the Keystone XL such a momentous controversy? I accepted it as obvious that the greenhouse gas emissions implicated by an oil pipeline would become an environmental debate, but Ken pointed out that there are already 160 thousand miles of oil pipelines in the United States and none has received the hullaballoo of the Keystone XL. A Keystone pipeline already exists, jutting out at a right angle before running down to Oklahoma. The Keystone XL is an express line, which would snake down a more direct route from Alberta to Port Arthur in Texas, linking up for part of the way with the existing pipeline. So why are there protestors in front of the White House?

What will actually be running through the pipeline, Ken says, is not crude oil, but rather “dilbit.” Dilbit, or diluted bitumen, is a watered-down form of sticky tar sand deposits carrying hazardous chemicals and toxic heavy metals (National Geographic). Environmental groups worry that the corrosive nature of dilbit will make it more likely to leak and contaminate water supplies along the length of the pipeline. Extracting the tar sand and breaking it down produces far more carbon emissions than regular crude oil (National Geographic). 

Additionally, Ken argued that today there’s a greater climate change consciousness than ever before. It also helped that 350.org, the international climate change campaign founded by environmentalist Bill McKibben made the XL one of their central issues. But in the Senate, proponents still argue for the pipeline’s benefits in terms of job creation and less foreign dependence on oil. Ken called these ideas “oil industry propaganda,” most of which amount to lies. Estimates about actual job creation are very low, and the United States is currently an exporter of oil. About 60% of the gas from the pipeline will likely be exported. 

Was it Ken’s intention to bring light to these issues when he set out from Deadhorse to hike along the pipeline’s path? While he hoped that something would come out of it, Ken says it “needed to be a pure journey.” He didn’t want people to think that he was just out for attention, and he wanted the genuine responses of all the landowners he spoke to along the way. Hearing him speak about the prairies and the open sky and the unparalleled sense of freedom, it sounded nothing but pure. 

Ken found a surprising amount of indifference or approval for the Keystone XL project during his hike. Landowners were receiving hefty compensation checks from the government and many felt resigned about the project. But he also met angry property-owners who scorned the idea of a pipeline over property they had owned for generations. You can’t trust those federal “shysters,” they said. 

Most of Ken’s interaction with landowners occurred when he approached their homes to ask for water. Otherwise, he got his water “how the cows got it,” from mills, ponds, or streams. His food (chips, trail mix, and other hearty fare) came to him in mail packages from a friend in Denver. Food and drink were the least of Ken’s problems. Hiking an average of twenty miles a day, he suffered from Athlete’s foot, blisters, gashes, and severe shin splints. His slideshow presentation of his trip included a large number of pictures of his struggling feet. He was also charged by a bull moose, a stampede of cows, and deported from a county after being falsely accused of releasing dogs from homes. Yet, despite his hardships, there was still a glow of excitement in Ken’s eyes when he talked about the hike. He says that above all, it renewed his “faith in mankind.” This was interesting to hear amidst a description of the squalid industrial areas he trekked through and the stench nearer the tar sands. 

It will be interesting to see if Obama approves the pipeline, which he has said he will not do if he determines that it will exacerbate climate change (NPR). An increasing number of Americans are expressing a desire to move away from fossil fuels and many feel that the Keystone XL is a step in the wrong direction for national energy goals. In the meantime, we have humble adventurist Ken Ilgunas, walking the line between the two sides of the debate to get real insight from the people most affected by the project.

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