First covered here

Pipeline trek interview with Ken Ilgunas by The National Geographic:

Within a week of his inauguration, President Trump signed an executive memorandum reviving the Keystone XL pipeline that President Obama had previously blocked. But Trump’s support is no guarantee that it will be built, says Ken Ilgunas, a young writer who hiked all 1,900 miles of the proposed pipeline, which would carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta to Texas. [See a map of the Keystone XL pipeline.]

Crossing the pipeline

Ilgunas’s book, Trespassing Across America: One Man’s Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland, tells the story of his nearly five-month journey down the pipeline’s contested path. Speaking from his home in North Carolina, Ilgunas explained why conservatives and liberals united against the pipeline in some states but not in others; how he experienced both hostility and kindness during his walk; and why he’d rather live with hope than despair. [Find out what the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines will do to people, animals, and the environment.]

How the pipeline hike started

We first encounter you working as a camp dishwasher in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Set the scene for us and tell us how you came up with the idea for this insane trip.

[Laughs] I’d just graduated from graduate school at Duke University with a Liberal Studies degree and I was engaged in an experiment to graduate debt-free in America. I avoided going into massive debt by living in a van but graduated with only about $1,000 in my bank account. I wanted to write a book about that but ran out of money, so I moved to Alaska and got a job dishwashing in the middle of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. The male to female ratio is nine to one; it’s nothing but dudes and equipment.

When change is imminent

But I think it’s in those moments of despair and meaninglessness that we’re most ready to commit to a big change. The Keystone XL was all over the news. People were going to jail over it, protesting it. Here were these people living lives of meaning and sacrifice on this important battleground in the war over climate change. And yet here I was, washing dishes for the oil industry.

It was a kind of existential crisis. So my buddy Liam, who was a cook working alongside me, suggested we hike the Keystone XL pipeline. It was a crazy idea but I embraced that spirit of craziness and thought, “What the hell! This could be my escape.” In the end, my friend couldn’t make it. So my hike became a solo adventure: Frodo going by himself to Mount Doom.

You started your trek in the tar sands of Alberta. Give us a picture of this landscape and explain how the pipeline will increase the threat to the environment posed by the tar sands.

What we’re talking about in northern Alberta is arguably the worst man-made environmental disaster in world history. The tar sands are a massive area in Northern Alberta, about 54,000 square miles or the size of England. It’s basically what they call muskeg [grassy bog] and boreal forest. But to get to the oil you have to bulldoze the boreal forest and create this hellish, lunar landscape with enormous tailings ponds where they put the liquid residue from the refining process; giant, black fields of petroleum coke, which is an extract from the refining process; and these weird, yellow sulfur pyramids.

What a project like the Keystone XL will do is make this area expand, by creating more demand for the tar sands area to be developed. There is wildlife displacement, Native American villages are experiencing unprecedented rates of cancer, the rivers are being polluted, and the tar sands themselves are contributing unbelievable amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. It’s a disaster.

Read the complete story at The National Geographic

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

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