A group of 10 students banded together during a peaceful, symbolic demonstration Tuesday at Congressman French Hill’s headquarters in Conway to voice their disapproval of President Donald Trump’s executive actions Jan. 24 to advance the Keystone XL Pipeline.
The group spoke out against Hill’s approval of the continuance of the project, despite the damage caused by the Pegasus Pipeline bursting and spilling more than 200,000 gallons of crude oil into a Mayflower neighborhood in 2013.
According to Hill’s website, Welspun Tubular — a Little Rock-based company — was hired to build 700 miles of the pipe. The website stated that more than 350 miles of pipe sits at the plant while the company waits for approval.
Following President Trump’s actions, Hill made an announcement in support of the controversial issue.
"In his first week on the job, President Trump is proving that he is serious about North American energy independence, job growth and private infrastructure spending," Hill said. "Keystone has already produced over 600 jobs in central Arkansas and would create thousands of ready-to-launch private sector American jobs, while having a minimal impact on the environment. These are the pro-growth decisions that the president promised the American people and I will continue to work with him to support American energy and job growth."
Guneev Sharma, a student at Hendrix who organized the nonviolent protest, said that Hill’s nod toward President Trump’s executive action "clearly reflects that [Hill] is selling out to party politics and big oil."
The group made fake $100 bills with the congressman’s face on them and dropped them off at Hill’s office during the protest to symbolize him "selling out."
When Sharma heard about the decision to move forward and the congressman’s stance, he thought of the situation in Mayflower in 2013.
"When I was still in high school in Hot Springs, Arkansas, I drove up to Hendrix to visit my future school and I had the windows down and I could smell the gasoline in Mayflower and so I read up on the issue a little more and realized that there was this pipeline that had burst and it was an awful incident and pipelines burst all the time," he said. "This is not just Mayflower. This is not just what happened in the gulf."
Sharma said he believes Hill is conforming to the views of his party and is not being a representative of Arkansans.
A representative in the Conway office patched the group in via conference call to Hill’s Deputy Chief of Staff Peter Comstock in Washington D.C. to voice their concerns.
Comstock said one of the many differences between the Pegasus Pipeline in Mayflower and the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline is that the prior was a decades old, possibly 1950s-era pipeline.
"[The Keystone XL] is a modern pipeline, modern energy infrastructure, which the congressman supports," he said. "The pipeline [has actually] undergone numerous environmental reviews including the final environmental review by the state department that was released, I think, in 2015. This is something that President Obama opposed even though the state department said this would have minimal environmental impact."
Comstock said he thinks there’s also a concern that, currently, oil is being transported via train. He said new, modern pipelines with modified safety features, like the Keystone XL, would be the safest way to transport the oil safely.
"It’s really undergone everything necessary, including environmental reviews, testing [and] they’ve rerouted the pipeline numerous times to adhere to environmental concerns," Comstock said. "I think [Hill] just thinks this is a good project, it’s a good energy infrastructure, it’s good for America, it’s good for North American energy independence and that’s why he supports it."
While Comstock said it has been studied extensively over the last seven or eight years, President Trump’s order doesn’t automatically approve the building of the pipeline.
"It’s just saying the environmental reviews that have been done before, those should satisfy the requirements and that they can reapply for the permit to build that," Comstock said. "This is just kind of expediting the process so, you know, it remains to be seen what is going to happen there, but we are supportive of that. We think it should go forward. But we’ll certainly wait and see what the final result is."
Student Issac Filat changed the narrative slightly and said that oil is not the energy of the future and inquired as to whether Hill supported clean energy.
Comstock said "yes, absolutely" and supports many other alternative energy infrastructures including solar and wind energy.
"These are certainly things we are looking at in the future," he said. "I think, as far as what we’re using right now, and those are certainly things we can use in the future, but there’s still a need for oil in the U.S. and these pipelines will help us be more energy independent in that area and then we can invest more in these other areas, these other renewables moving forward and you know he believes we need a long-term strategy on that as well."
The Log Cabin Democrat reached out to Congressman French Hill, who is in Washington, for a comment.
"We strive to accommodate the thoughts and concerns of all of our constituents," Hill said. "I love to see young adults, particularly students, engaging with their government on issues that are meaningful to them. Our doors will always be open to those who are in need of our help or want to express their views."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.