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January 09, 2012

Nebraska Teen Speaks Out Against Tar Sands Pipeline

Helen-Winston

Last September a 14-year high school freshman stood up in a packed arena in the shadow of the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln and testified at a U.S. State Department hearing on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would carry crude tar sands oil through Nebraska en route from Canada to refineries on Texas' Gulf Coast.

"My name is Helen Winston, I'm 14 years old, and I'm from Omaha, Nebraska," the young woman began. "I do not stand before you as some brainwashed hippie child. I stand before you as a free-thinking young adult. I stand before you as a representative of the hundreds of outraged young people who could not make it here today.

"I'm here representing not just the youth of Nebraska, but the future of America," she continued, her words nearly drowned out by applause. "We don't see a future with the pipeline. We don't see a future of an America still reliant upon filthy oil. We don't see a future where farmers are bullied for their lands while the government just stands and watches. We don't see an America that is still dependent on oil in our future."

Helen-Winston-testifying

Click here, or on the image above, to hear Helen's testimony.

Winston's father, Ken, a lobbyist for the Nebraska Sierra Club, had brought Helen to Washington, D. C., earlier in the year, where she accompanied him to meetings with the EPA and the Nebraska congressional delegation. The two also participated in the November 6 demonstration outside the White House, calling on President Obama to deny the Keystone XL permit. But the words Helen spoke at the State Department hearing in Lincoln on September 27 were hers and hers alone.

"When I invited Helen to come to Washington with me in March, I didn't envision that she would participate," Ken says. "But she introduced herself in those meetings as representing the Sierra Club and the youth of Nebraska. And when it came time for the State Department hearing, at which many members of the Nebraska Legislature were present, she wrote her testimony with no input from me."

At Millard South High School in Omaha, Helen is the campus organizer of the student coalition for the Sierra Club, a leader of the Millard South Environmental Club, and co-founder of Patriots Protecting Nebraska. (The school's nickname is The Patriots.)

The Keystone XL Pipeline would cross six U.S. states en route from Alberta to Texas and pass directly over the Ogallala Aquifer on its way through Nebraska. TransCanada, the company proposing to build the pipeline, has a history of leaks and spills. Its existing Keystone 1 Pipeline, which runs from Alberta to Illinois, leaked 12 times in its first year of operation, including a 21,000-gallon spill of tar sands crude oil and toxic chemicals in North Dakota last May.

One of the world's largest aquifers, the Ogallala underlies portions of eight states, but by far the most water is under Nebraska, in some places as little as six feet below the surface. According to the U. S. Geological Survey, more than a quarter of the irrigated land in the United States overlies the Ogalalla, which yields about 30 percent of the nation's ground water used for irrigation and provides drinking water to 82 percent of the people who live within the aquifer boundary.

"My testimony to the State Department was written in 20 minutes a couple hours before it was to be delivered," Helen says. "I made it short and easy to understand, without scientific jargon or half-truths. I took a page of notebook paper and wrote what I was furious about. I was frustrated by the fact that a foreign corporation could just waltz into my state and threaten the people who work the hardest for their living."

One thing you should not do, Helen says, is push around a Nebraska rancher or farmer. "That's a big part of what makes me passionate about being an activist. As a teenager, I'm aware that every decision that's made by the government affects my future, my friends' futures, and my kids' futures. If something is wrong with the way the human race treats Mother Earth, then I'll try to fix it. We all should."

And so this impassioned young woman told the State Department and members of her home state's legislature about the future she envisioned:

"We see a future of windmills, solar panels, and hydroelectricity. We see cars running on hydrogen. We see clean air in the big cities. None of that can happen if we use this crutch, this atrocity that is the pipeline. I want to live the rest of my life drinking clean water, breathing clean air, and living in a clean Nebraska."

"When you make your decision," she concluded, "I wish you not to just consider your future, I want you to also consider my future, the future of the hundreds of people whom I represent, and the billions who will come afterward. Remember me, and remember the kids I represent. To quote Star Trek: 'The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.' We, the future, are many. And the rest of the people…"—she swept her hand around and surveyed the chamber—"are few."

Read more about toxic tar sands and the Sierra Club's work to move America beyond oil.

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