Civil Disobedience on Tar Sands Continues, Amid Ominous Signs From Administration

Civil Disobedience on Tar Sands Continues, Amid Ominous Signs From Administration

Civil Disobedience on Tar Sands Continues, Amid Ominous Signs From Administration

Over 300 people have been arrested outside the White House in protest of the Keystone XL pipeline–but the administration is signaling the project is going to be approved. 


A prolonged civil disobedience campaign outside the White House that opposes a major oil pipeline from the “tar sands” of Canada is now in its sixth day, and 322 people have been arrested.

The Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico would carry 900,000 barrels per day of crude oil refined from bitumen in the Canadian soil. Aside from the ravaging impacts of extraction, the process contributes anywhere from twice to three times as much greenhouse gases as normal crude refining, and there’s serious potential for leaks in the transcontinental pipeline.

The State Department, which is now conducting an environmental review, will then decide by the end of the year whether to issue a “certificate of national interest,” which would allow the pipeline project to go forward.

 As the arrests build, so too does the movement’s support. Yesterday, every major environmental group in the country came out in opposition to the pipeline in a joint letter. The groups, ranging from the Sierra Club to Greenpeace, have often clashed on climate strategy in the Obama era, so the support is particularly notable. “On an issue as complicated as climate, there will often be disagreements over tactics and goals—just recall the differences over the Senate climate bill this time last year,” environmentalist and protest organizer Bill McKibben, said. “But there are some projects so obviously dangerous that they unify everyone, and the Keystone XL pipeline is the best example yet.”

The protests have brought a fair amount of mainstream media coverage to the issue, culminating in a strong New York Times editorial earlier this week, urging the State Department to “acknowledge the environmental risk of the pipeline and the larger damage caused by tar sands production.”

(The media coverage was far less than what it could be, however, given the import of the issue—NASA’s James Hansen has said that if tar sand oil makes a massive entry into the market, it’s “game over” for efforts to stop catastrophic climate change. And as Mother Jones environmental reporter Kate Sheppard mused on Twitter today, “Can you imagine how much more coverage this would get if 272 tea partiers had been arrested?”)

Nevertheless, the industry has taken note of the protests. The American Petroleum Institute has repeatedly bashed the Times editorial, and ThinkProgress’ dogged Chamber of Commerce chronicler Lee Fang noticed the Chamber hitting back too.

Unfortunately, the administration has not yet acknowledged the mass civil disobedience. And more troublingly, reports suggest and approval of the pipeline is likely.

A State Department spokesperson told The Nation when asked about the protests that “The State Department continues to assess the proposal for the Keystone XL pipeline project. We consider the input and feedback from the publican important part of the determination process.” The White House would similarly not acknowledge the action outside the gates, telling The Nation only that “The State Department is assessing the project on behalf of the federal government. That process is ongoing, including receiving important input from the public and stakeholders.”

The State Department may be trying to throw some cold water on the movement, however—according to a curiously timed leak to the Washington Post yesterday, the State Department’s environmental review, scheduled to be released by the end of the month, “will remove a major roadblock to construction” of the Keystone XL pipeline.

According to the source, the review is expected to affirm the State Department’s earlier finding that the project will have “limited adverse environmental impacts.” (A University of Nebraska study has found this evaluation to be deeply flawed).

But there’s still nine days of civil disobedience left—and many more willing to be arrested.  

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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