Dirty Oil and Shovel-Ready Jobs

A Role Play on Tar Sands and the Keystone XL Pipeline

By Abby MacPhail

Illustrator: Randall Enos

Which country is the No. 1 supplier of oil to the United States? Saudi Arabia? No. Iraq? No. Russia? No.

My geography students were surprised to learn it’s my country—Canada. Most of that oil comes from the tar sands located in northern Alberta, in an area roughly the size of Florida. The Alberta tar sands are home to the world’s second largest deposit of oil, after Saudi Arabia. They are also the source of great controversy, seen by some as “Canada’s greatest treasure” and others as “Canada’s greatest shame.”

As a Canadian teaching at an international school in New York City, I had long been planning to teach about the tar sands. Although many people are aware of the devastating effects of BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or Shell’s human rights abuses in Nigeria, few know about the enormous environmental and social injustice caused by oil extraction just to the north. The perfect opportunity to teach about this issue arose this past fall when the media focused attention on the proposed TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline. If approved, this pipeline would have brought as much as 700,000 barrels a day of crude oil from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries in Texas.

Who would benefit most from the pipeline? Who would suffer? What would be the pipeline’s long-term effects on the environment, economy, and on local communities? Should we support or resist increasing the capacity of the tar sands? These were the questions that I wanted my geography students (most of whom come from relatively privileged backgrounds) to consider.

To confront these questions, I wrote a role play. In this role play, students take on the characters of six key stakeholders invited to an imaginary public hearing, chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (played by myself), to discuss whether or not the State Department and President Obama should approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

I introduced the role play by providing students with some basic information and photos of the tar sands and the proposed pipeline. The handout I distributed also explained the political context:

This project is unique in that it does not have to go through Congress. Because the Keystone XL pipeline comes from Canada, it is a foreign project and foreign projects don’t need approval from Congress. They need approval from the State Department. So the State Department, under the leadership of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has to decide whether this pipeline is in the U.S. national interest. If they decide that it is, then President Obama has the last word.

Once my students were clear on the situation, I wrote the six different roles on the board and explained a little about each group before allowing students to come write their names under the group they would like to represent. Groups were limited to five people at most, so once there were five names, students had to go with their second or third choice. I explained that the roles were based on information found on the organizations’ websites and in recent media interviews given by their representatives. Here is a summary of each role:

TransCanada: Our company builds the infrastructure that transports energy throughout North America. As the proposed constructor of the pipeline, we have come to the public hearing to clear up any confusion surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline. We want to assure the secretary of state and all those attending the hearing that the pipeline will be safe, will not cause damage to communities or the environment, and will provide thousands of jobs at a time when millions of Americans are unemployed.

American Petroleum Institute: API represents and speaks on behalf of480 oil and natural gas companies. We support the Keystone XL pipeline and call on President Obama to fulfill his promise to create thousands of jobs by approving this project immediately. Let’s face it, the Canadian tar sands are already being developed, and the Keystone pipeline will allow the United States to secure the energy we need from a friendly and reliable trading partner: Canada. Tar sands oil is a source of ethical oil. Not like Saudi Arabia, which exported 400 million barrels of oil to the United States last year. Why should we trade with a country that does not allow its women to vote, drive, or even leave the house without a man? By getting our oil from Canada, we will stop funding the oppression of women.

Republican Party: We represent members of the Republican Party, including presidential candidates. We support the Keystone XL pipeline because it is a shovel-ready, multibillion-dollar project that will create thousands of jobs. Extreme environmental groups are opposed to the pipeline because they say it will damage the environment and cause global warming. They are flat-out wrong. Pipelines are the safest way to transport oil. Global warming is nothing more than an unproven theory. We need to stop wasting our time with unproven theories and start providing jobs for the American people.

Environmental Activists: We are completely opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline and to the development of the Alberta tar sands. In fact, we were among the thousands of activists who protested outside the White House for two weeks in August 2011 and circled the White House in November to tell President Obama to reject this pipeline. This pipeline will be “game over for the climate.” We must dramatically reduce carbon emissions. We must decrease the capacity of the tar sands, not increase it. President Obama keeps saying that he wants to do something about climate change but Congress won’t let him. Well, Congress has no say in this project, so here is Mr. Obama’s chance to prove that he is serious about protecting the environment and reducing climate change.

Indigenous Environmental Network:Our network works to protect the environment and build sustainable communities. We are completely opposed to the tar sands and to the Keystone XL pipeline. Don’t believe the oil companies when they say that “everything is fine” in northern Alberta or that tar sands oil is ethical. Tar sands oil is destroying our cultural heritage, ecosystems, and health. In the First Nations communities surrounding the tar sands, there are dangerously high rates of cancer. If you were to see with your own eyes how lives are being sacrificed for oil money, you, too, would be completely opposed to this project.

Bold Nebraska: We represent people from all walks of life and political parties who are opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline. If constructed, it would cross through the Nebraska Sand Hills, a fragile ecosystem where a lot of our cattle are raised. It would kick farmers off land that their families have farmed for generations. The pipeline would cross the Ogallala Aquifer, our cleanest source of water, which we use not only for drinking, but also for Nebraska’s main economic activity, agriculture. We are very concerned about leaks. TransCanada is lying when it says that the pipeline will be safe. We know that there were 12 spills in 12 months on TransCanada’s Keystone I pipeline. We call on President Obama to follow through with his election promises of healing the planet and reject this project.

Preparing for the Role Play

Once students had selected the organizations they would represent, I asked them to gather together in their groups and to spend the remaining class period preparing for the public hearing. I gave each group their role and asked them to first read it silently before working together to make a list of their main arguments in favor of or against the pipeline. Once they had identified three to five arguments, I asked them to appoint one member of the group to be an expert on each of the arguments and to summarize that argument in their own words. The experts’ task would be to explain their argument during the group’s introductory speech, raise it with other groups during the role play, and be prepared to defend or respond to that issue when it was raised by another group.

For example, the TransCanada group identified several arguments in favor of the pipeline: safety, job creation, energy security, and TransCanada’s policy of respecting local cultures and communities. The group decided that Jason would be the expert on the safety of the pipeline and would be responsible for defending this point whenever the issue of leaks or environmental damage was raised. Henry’s task was to emphasize the number of jobs that would be created and accuse anti-pipeline groups of being “job killers.” Homer’s role was to stress the energy security that the pipeline would provide to the United States, and Kelly would defend TransCanada’s policy of respect for local cultures. Dividing the main points up in this way ensured that all students had a role and prevented the most vocal members of the group from dominating the debate.

As students summarized arguments in their own words, I circulated among them, clearing up confusion and helping to build their confidence in expressing their main points. I urged them to provide more details for their arguments and, when appropriate, to bring in their knowledge of climate change and sustainability, two topics we had just covered. Once they had written their arguments, I had them prepare for the role play by introducing themselves to the other members of their group and explaining why they were either for or against the pipeline. By their third run-through, most were confident in their ability to articulate their position.

Public Hearing: Should President Obama Approve the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline?

The role play began the next day. The tables and chairs were arranged in a circle, and students found their places behind placards identifying the different groups. In my role as Hillary Clinton, I welcomed all stakeholders to the meeting, sent greetings from President Obama and my husband, Bill, and assured them that both the State Department and the president were keen to hear their concerns and would take these into account when making the final decision on whether or not to approve the pipeline.

Each group made a brief introductory statement, presenting their group to the class and stating whether or not they were in favor of the pipeline. Once all were clear on the stakeholders present and on their positions, I opened the floor to comments and questions. I asked for a show of hands from those who would like to begin and started a speakers list on the board. At any time, students could raise their hand to be added to the list. We basically went in sign-up order, but I sometimes allowed groups to respond to comments directed at them.

Using the words of NASA climate scientist James Hansen, Barry began the debate by stating his opposition to the pipeline, saying it would be “game over for the climate.” He described how burning fossil fuels contributes to climate change and talked about the need to develop alternative forms of energy. He was backed up by fellow environmental activist Allan, who took on the role of Bill McKibben. He described how he had created an organization called 350.org because 350 parts per million is the safe amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “And do you know what level of CO2 is in our atmosphere now? 389 ppm. With this pipeline, it will only get worse.”

This was met with great opposition from the Republican Party. True to his role as Rick Perry, Timothy reminded his fellow Americans that there was “no proof at all that human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, cause global warming. We should not make any decisions on things that have not been proven.” This prompted several more hands to be raised and names added to the speakers list.

Next up on the speakers list was Molly from the American Petroleum Institute. She thanked Rick Perry and his colleagues for their support, and wished everyone had “as much respect for the oil and natural gas industry” based on the millions of jobs and millions of dollars they provide in the United States. She also talked about the 20,000 jobs that this project would immediately create.

Heather, from the Environmental Activists group, challenged her on the jobs number, pointing out that it seemed to change day by day. She added that if Obama was really serious about creating jobs, he would start investing in clean energy.

After a few more comments on the issue of jobs, the subject turned to the safety of the pipeline. Siena, from Bold Nebraska, said that the route of the pipeline, through the Ogallala Aquifer and Nebraska Sand Hills, made no sense. If the pipe leaked, drinking water and farming would be threatened. Jason, from TransCanada, assured all gathered that there was no need to worry about leaks. Using a line straight from TransCanada’s website, he stated that “the Keystone XL pipeline will be the newest, strongest, and most advanced pipeline in operation in North America.”

“Also,” he explained, “we will monitor our pipeline, using satellite technology, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If there is a leak, we will get to it right away.”

Kara, from the American Petroleum Institute, followed: “Would you rather get your oil from Saudi Arabia where women are oppressed and can’t even vote or drive cars? Or would you rather get your oil from our friendly neighbor Canada? This oil is ethical oil. Even Canada’s minister of the environment agrees.”

Now it was the Indigenous Environmental Network’s turn to reply. “There is no such thing as ethical oil,” Peter began. “Let me tell you about how the tar sands affect the lives of the indigenous peoples who live downstream from them. Our water has been polluted, our forests have been cut down, and we are dying of cancer because of this oil. Cancer rates increased 30 percent in Fort Chipewyan between 1996 and 2005. My town of 1,200 people has five cases of a very rare cancer whose rate is usually one per 100,000.”

The role play continued for the remainder of our double period. When it was time to end, I thanked everyone for attending the public hearing, assured them I would bring all of their comments and concerns back to President Obama, and asked them to stay tuned in the following days for the decision.

In our next class, I asked students to take 10 minutes to individually make a list of all of the reasons for or against the pipeline, based on what they learned during the role play. Once they had written down as much as they could remember, I showed video clips of recent media interviews with many of the characters they had played. These included environmental activist Bill McKibben of 350.org, Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein, Cindy Schild of the American Petroleum Institute debating Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska on Democracy Now!, and Republicans Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and Ted Poe. The final clip showed Canadian protesters and members of the Indigenous Environmental Network handing out goody bags of fake tar sands oil at the Durban Climate Summit. Hearing these ideas again, this time from the participants themselves, helped to better cement them in the minds of my students. They also found it amusing to see the characters they had played. Next time, I told the students, I would ask them to share their own opinions on the pipeline.

Where Do You Stand on the Pipeline?

To debrief the role play and encourage students to explore their personal opinions on the issue, I used a four corners activity. I hung signs—“strongly agree,” “agree,” “strongly disagree,” and “disagree”—in the four corners of the classroom. “I’m going to read some statements,” I told them. “Listen carefully and go to the corner of the room that best represents your point of view. I’m going to call on volunteers to share their opinions and to respond to the comments of others.”

Then I read the statements one by one:

People are suffering from lack of jobs in this country. We should build the pipeline and think about its consequences later.

The pipeline is not sustainable.

We should trust TransCanada when they say the pipeline will be safe and therefore we don’t need to worry about leaks and damage to the environment.

Tar sands oil is more ethical than Saudi Arabian oil.

President Obama should approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

I like this activity because it allows students to physically show where they stand on an issue and ensures that even the quieter students make their views known. It also allows for change. Sometimes, upon hearing the comments of their classmates, students changed their minds and silently walked to another corner of the room.

After hearing their personal opinions on the pipeline, I asked students to return to their desks. I announced that, in fact, Obama had made a decision on the pipeline: “Just a few days ago, Obama decided to delay this decision until after the 2012 election. He has basically said that the issue needs more review.” Although my students disagreed about what this postponement might mean for the pipeline, it did present an opportunity for us to make our voices heard.

Letters to President Obama

As a follow-up writing assignment, I asked my students to write letters to Obama, stating their opinion on the pipeline. Three students thought the pipeline should be built. Sheila, Jason, and Henry felt that letting the oil rest under the earth would be a waste and it should be used to support our economy. But the majority of students advised Obama not to approve the pipeline.

Their letters were their most sincere, thoughtful assignments so far. This, I believe, was due first to the authenticity of the assignment, but also because the role play allowed them to empathize with those who suffer the social and environmental consequences of tar sands oil in a way that simply reading about it in the New York Times could not. Many of them told Obama about their geography class role play. Some used their character’s language of activism and critique:

Homer: In our role play, I played a TransCanada representative. When I read my role, I was in favor of the pipeline. But when I heard what the environmentalists and indigenous people had to say about it, I changed my mind. I saw that the oil commercials are a lie.

Stacy: For the role play, I chose to be in the Republican Party group and realized how difficult it was for me to fight for something I do not believe in. Although I think the Republicans might be right that this will help the economy, this will only be for a short period of time. I believe the environmentalists when they say that this pipeline will be game over for the environment, and game over for the environment means game over for us.

Peter: The land surrounding the tar sands rightfully belongs to the indigenous people. Increasing the tar sands will keep raising the rates of cancer in this area. The indigenous people will be forced to move away from the land their families have lived on for generations or face cancer. Putting anyone in this situation is not ethical. Tar sands oil is not ethical oil.

Allan:Already we see wars over oil. Enough time and money have been spent on a doomed resource. The way forward is to rid ourselves of our dependence on oil. Investing in alternative energy would not only set us on the route to a sustainable society, but would also create thousands of jobs. The time when we are not dependent on gasoline is when we will have true energy security.

My favorite moment came a few weeks after we completed the unit.

“While you were on your winter break, a bill was passed in Congress that forced Obama to make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline by February and yesterday he made a decision,” I announced as my students piled in. I played a clip from Democracy Now! of Amy Goodman announcing that “the Obama administration has rejected the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline that would stretch from the Alberta tar sands to the Gulf Coast.” I followed that up with a clip of Bill McKibben reacting to the decision:

This was a real victory for people standing up. If we hadn’t gone and done what we did out in the streets, if we hadn’t made record numbers of public comments on this, then the oil industry, as usual, would have gotten away with a really bad idea.

When my students burst into applause at the end of the clip and suggested that we should celebrate, I knew that the role play had had the impact I wanted. “The next time somebody says that protests or Occupy Wall Street is a waste of time,” Heather told me as she packed up her books, “I’ll tell them about the Keystone XL pipeline.”


The Tar Sands and the Keystone XL Pipeline Role Play

Abby MacPhail (Contact Me) teaches high school humanities at an international school in New York City. All of the students’ names have been changed. This role play was modeled on “Oil, Rainforests, and Indigenous Cultures,” written by Bill Bigelow and published in Rethinking Globalization.