Sanders Reed, Akilah

Picture of Giraffe Sanders Reed, Akilah

If you’re young, and you’re not a lawyer, and you don’t have much money, do you really stand a chance opposing a big oil company in the courtroom? Akilah Sanders-Reed believed she did. After all, she says, “You don’t have to have a law degree to know what’s right.”

The big oil company is the Canadian firm, Enbridge Energy, and it wants to build a new pipeline from the Alberta, Canada, tar sands to Superior, Wisconsin. Their plan is to send 760,000 gallons of oil a day through 337 miles of Minnesota wetlands and wilderness. And the company’s accident history isn’t exactly pristine: In 2010, one of its pipelines in Michigan broke; the needed cleanup was so vast it cost the company more than a billion dollars.

Sanders-Reed said of the Minnesota pipeline: “This pipeline would lock in billions of dollars of climate damages, which is a price tag my generation will have to pay in the form of public health problems, natural disasters, crop failures, and increased cost of living.”

Sanders-Reed, a New Mexican attending college in Minnesota, knew she couldn’t stop this alone, so she recruited a group of young people—16- to 24-year-olds—from across Minnesota. They formed Youth Climate Intervenors (YCI), and set out to stop Enbridge. They did research, developed arguments, recruited witnesses, practiced cross-examining, and wrote briefs—a lot of work, all for no pay.

No doubt impressed with their preparation—again, without a lawyer—the Public Utilities Commission granted YCI “standing” during the pipeline’s permitting process. Enbridge protested, but a judge ruled in favor of YCI. That meant that the organization could legally challenge Enbridge during the process; it remains the only youth group ever granted intervenor status in a pipeline case.

And challenge Enbridge they did—calling up witnesses as well as cross-examining experts representing the company. A YCI member said: “That people were willing to donate their time and expertise to this cause was really powerful, and the fact that we were able to do it successfully without a lawyer was empowering.”

Sanders-Reed had been a climate-change activist since she was 14 and heard a speech about threats to the environment. “That was wrong. I, personally, and my generation, were going to be stuck with the consequences of that.” That year, she organized a climate change festival in Albuquerque, even though “I had no experience, no help, and no idea what I was doing.” The year after that, she sued New Mexico’s governor and the state, claiming that not enough was being done to protect the public from poor air quality.

Sanders-Reed and YCI remain prepared to fight any threats to the climate. As she says, “We’re the best advocates for our own futures.”