Thoughts On Obama’s Visit To Cushing, OK: The Pipeline Crossroads For The World

Our guest blogger is David Turnbull, the former director of Climate Action Network — International who is chronicling his month-long road trip across the nation in a hybrid car.

There’s a lot that I could write about today — the way driving on country roads rather than interstates lets you have a feel of the land and country you’re driving by, images of the colorful diner where I had lunch in the middle of nowhere in western Oklahoma, the sublimely random and awesome retro ’80s bar I happened upon tonight in Tulsa, etc etc etc.

But tonight I’m going to focus on one experience: I drove through Cushing, Oklahoma today.

Cushing, for those who don’t know, is known as the “pipeline crossroads for the world.” I’m aware of it because it’s been one of the cities at the center of the Keystone XL pipeline debate. The Keystone XL pipeline would, if constructed, transport the world’s dirtiest oil from Canada through the heartland of America to the Texas coast to be refined and, for the most part, shipped overseas. It’s a terrible project, and the President was right to reject it not once, but twice…and yet it keeps coming back like a zombie waking from the dead. Cushing would be a major point in the pipeline, and even today sits at what could be a crucial junction of the Southern portion, which it seems Obama may unfortunately be ready to push forward.


I drove into Cushing late in the afternoon today. When I got there I decided I’d go see a bit of downtown. There were signs talking about a “historic downtown,” so I figured I’d have a look. What I found was depressing, in as much as any town that’s struggling with hard economic times is depressing.

It’s a town where half of the storefronts are closed and boarded up. The main street, the street that is supposed to be the epicenter of the town: nearly deserted. The few people who were actually walking around looked depressed…but maybe that was just me, projecting my own feelings onto my perception of them.

After a quick tour of downtown Cushing, if you can call it downtown, I drove south of town. To where the oil sits.

I’d had a look at satellite views of the town with Google maps earlier in the day to plan my trip, so I thought I had a sense of the scale of this oil “stockpile”. But nothing could have prepared me for what I was going to see.

All of a sudden, ahead of me were THE…BIGGEST…OIL DRUMS you could ever imagine. And not just one, or two, or ten. We’re talking dozens. Dozens upon dozens.

It was almost impressive……ok, actually it was *definitely* impressive how much oil there was surrounding me. But equally impressive was the feeling of creepiness, haunting, of a chilling effect that I had. I literally had goosebumps coming down my neck as I drove around this place.


As I slowly made my way through the grid of roads criss crossing the field of oil dreams drums, I passed signs telling me that my car and person could be searched at any time. There were also Enbridge signs all around as well — physical manifestations of this villainous company I’ve come to know of over the past year or two all of a sudden staring me in the face.

Every car that passed was a truck. A big, scary truck. My little Honda Civic…a hybrid…with DC license plates…was overwhelmingly out of place.

But while I felt eerily and completely incongruous to my surroundings, I also felt paranoid that these people eyeing me suspiciously from above in their souped up pickups might think I was some scout of the Obama administration, what with my DC plates and my camera poking out my window…and the fact that the President is coming to this town in a few days.

Oh yes, Obama will be here on Thursday.

I’m really kind of amazed that Obama is coming to this town. It shocked me that his staff would choose such a depressing town, such an emblematic town of all that is wrong with the fossil fuel society we live in. This place smells like a combination of oil, cow manure and sewage. The town’s full of boarded up windows and run down houses. The horizon is comprised of smokestacks spewing white smoke and oil pumps. In some eyes maybe it’s the American dream, but not mine.

But we’ll see, maybe they can make it look pretty. Maybe they can make it look like Obama is coming in to save the day, to resurrect this town, to spur the American economy with the promise of more oil (pipelines). Who knows.


All I know is that when I was driving around this town, when I was driving between countless oil tanks that dwarfed me on either side, I felt sad. I felt sad because Obama — my President — is coming here in two days to talk about how we can use this oil, to talk about how we can build more pipelines to use more oil. He’s going to the sad little town of Cushing to talk about oil, rather than going to the beautiful wind farms that I had seen on my way to this town and talking about how we need more of them.

Those wind farms might have brought chills to my spine as well as I drove by them — but they were good chills. They were ones where I look around and see that this is our future, this is what I’ve been fighting for. Not those oil barrels. Not those pipelines.

I drove out of Cushing after taking in the scene long enough to fear that some Enbridge goon might come find me, search my car and bully me away.

Over the past month I’ve met wonderfully interesting, friendly, and real people in many of the towns I’ve been to all around the country. And I’m sure, if I had stayed for a while, I would have met more of those great people in Cushing as well. But I didn’t want to. I wanted to get out as quickly as I could, to get that terrible feeling out of my gut. I know the people in this town are doing what they can to get by, working hard, living life, and finding ways to be happy like we all do. But I don’t want there to be more Cushings. I don’t want the smell of oil wafting over my town, or my friends’ (whether they are longtime or soon-to-be ones) towns.

I drove through Cushing today, and I’m glad I did. But I didn’t like it.


David responds to the comments:

Dear all,Thanks for taking the time to read my post, and for your comments.

The sentiments you all have expressed have certainly come through, and have caused me to reflect on what I wrote and what I meant to say. You and others who have commented elsewhere have taught me a lesson today, and I appreciate that.

I wanted to give a brief reply to clear up some things that I was not clear on in my original post. I do not expect you to necessarily change your feelings of me because of this one response, but if nothing else I wanted let you know that I am listening. I’m sorry I was not able to spend more time in town though, so that we could have this conversation in person perhaps.

I first of all want to apologize for offending you and others with what I wrote about your town in the post. In my mind, I had tried to make a distinction between the people and town of Cushing and the broader issues surrounding the pipelines and other oil industry activities in the area. I tried using Obama’s visit to the area and the town of Cushing as a metaphor to get at the larger issues. While I did not invent the experiences I had in seeing, smelling, walking and driving around the oil storage area, I recognize that there was some insensitivity in how I wrote about them. Obviously the distinction between the town and the broader issues did not come through, though.

You’re right that I only spent a small amount of time in the town, and drawing conclusions about a whole town from that short visit is unfair. I recognize that even if I had spent a week there I would not have gained a full understanding of what life is like in the town. But as I wrote in my post I’m sure if I had stuck around for a while I would have met great people in Cushing as I have in so many towns, and I’m sorry I didn’t have time to do so.

My point in writing my post was not to judge those of you who live there, or anyone who lives in a small town or even anyone who works on a pipeline. It also was not intended to judge or condemn Cushing as a town either, although I can see how it could come across that way. I was trying to say that I’m sad that the President is coming to a town to push for more oil drilling and more pipelines, when the future that I want to see moves us in a new direction, away from dirty energy sources that cause so many problems for our country.

Thanks again for your comments, and for the lesson I learned today.