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Dirty Oil and Shovel-Ready Jobs • A Role Play on Tar Sands and the Keystone XL Pipeline

By Abby Mac Phail

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Home > Archives > Volume 26 No.3 - Spring 2012

Illustration: Randall Enos

By Abby Mac Phail

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.

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