By Tulwen Adams ’22
During the fall and spring semesters, the Austin College Environmental Studies Department hosts a series of lunch talks designed to give current students a chance to meet with alumni (as well as other experts and professionals) to learn about the wide array of environmental professions and career paths that alumni have pursued after graduation. The talks are also an opportunity for students and faculty to learn about the projects, research and campaigns headed and assisted by alumni in a variety of fields, from the solar industry to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). In April 2021, Anthony Swift, the current director of the Canada Project of the NRDC, spoke about the organization’s largest undertaking: blocking the development of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Anthony Swift graduated from Austin College in 2003 with a Bachelor of Arts in political science and biology. As an undergraduate, Swift was an active member of the Austin College community, holding a position as Student Assembly President alongside an active membership in Phi Beta Kappa. As a junior, Swift was internally nominated for the Truman Scholarship in recognition of outstanding academic commitment to pursue a career in public service.
Following the completion of his degree at Austin College, he attended the University of Pennsylvania Law School, graduating in 2010 with a doctorate in law. Five years later in 2015, Swift would become the director of the Canada Project with the Natural Resources Defense Council. His work with the NRDC in blocking the Keystone XL pipeline represents the work of an agency undertaking a massive endeavor.
In Anthony’s words, at its most fundamental level, the Keystone XL pipeline represents a large-scale threat to human and environmental health. On the local scale, communities and ecosystems near the points of extraction, refining and transportation of tar sands face the threat of oil spills, the release of toxic contamination and environmental degradation. On the global scale, the distribution and use of fossil fuels derived from tars will increase the production of greenhouse gas emissions, spurring further climate change.
The site of tar sands extraction in Canada is northern Alberta. The local ecosystem is the boreal forest, one of the largest remaining intact forests on earth. The forest provides a wide array of ecosystem services, including climate change mitigation through the storage of atmospheric carbon. The mining of tar sands leaves large tracts of the boreal forest stripped bare of vegetation and interspersed with tailing ponds holding the toxic waste generated by extraction. In essence, mining tar sands transforms a thriving ecological community into a wasteland. In describing this transformation, Anthony recounted a flight he took over the tar sands fields. He showed a photo: a side by side of the boreal forest before and after tar sands extraction. The before photo showed a landscape of dense forest interspersed with clear lakes, pocket-sized from the height of the plane. The after photo showed a site of dark-looking, bare ground stretching into the distance that, in Anthony’s words, wouldn’t have been out of place in a post-apocalyptic, “Mad Max-style” movie set.
Environmental justice plays a key role in Anthony’s work and by extension the work of the NRDC. The Keystone XL pipeline project threatens the health and safety of the First Nation peoples of Canada, particularly in Northern Alberta where tar sands extraction, and consequently pollution, is concentrated. In the United States, the planned path of the Keystone pipeline would have driven through the tribal homeland of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, before continuing on through the Sand Hills of Nebraska, one of the most ecologically sensitive regions in the United States. Although Anthony highlighted the threat to both regions cultural and ecological importance, he noted that a spill anywhere along the route of the pipeline has the potential to cause massive environmental damage.
Transportation is key to the production and distribution of tar sands. The NRDC’s work to stall the transport of oil into the United States led to a decline in the total amount of tar sands extracted. There are 3 million barrels a day on today’s market. Had the Keystone XL project gone forward, that number would have risen to 5 million barrels per day — meaning 5 billion more barrels of oils refined into fossil fuels, threatening local communities and ecosystems along the way.
We are thankful to alums like Anthony not only for taking the time to speak with AC students and staff, but for the tremendous efforts they put forth to protect our environment. Other spring 2021 lunch talk speakers included:
- Vero Tessier ’21, an upcoming AC grad who defended her honors thesis on wildflower abundance and conservation at the Sneed Prairie Restoration Project.
- Natalia Carter ’05, an independent solar consultant working to bring awareness to the benefits of renewable energy.
- Sabina Wilhelm, a biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service working to monitor and protect seabirds in eastern Canada.
Photos courtesy of nrdc.org