The largest act of civil disobedience by environmentalists in decades began outside the White House this morning, as more than seventy activists were arrested at the north gates during a protest against the Keystone XL pipeline, which if approved by the administration would carry 900,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
The activists, who sat down at the gates at 11 am holding large banners reading “Climate change is not in our national interest,” were warned three times by US Park Police to move along, and were handcuffed and removed after they refused. More than 2,000 people have pledged to be arrested outside the White House every day until September 3, in daily installments of seventy-five to 100 people.
The Keystone Pipeline would carry oil gouged from the “tar sands” of Alberta—areas where soil is thick with bitumen, which can be refined into synthetic crude oil. The process is environmentally devastating. Parts of Alberta have already been ravaged by the extraction, and the refining process involved creates twice the greenhouse gases as producing a normal barrel of crude.
Since the pipeline would cross an international border, the State Department has jurisdiction and is completing an environmental assessment of the project, which could be released this week. The White House will have ninety days to decide whether to grant a permit for the pipeline. The grassroots group 350.org, which includes many Nation writers, has called for a campaign of nonviolent direct action aimed at persuading the administration to deny the permit.
The Alberta tar sands represent the second-largest repository of oil in the world, and climate scientists are horrified with the prospect of pumping that much carbon into the atmosphere. Environmentalist Bill McKibben, who led today’s action, noted that if all of the oil were extracted overnight it would increase the carbon in the earth’s atmosphere from 393 parts per million to 550 parts per million—a devastating increase. NASA climate scientist James Hansen recently wrote that since phasing existing carbon emissions out is already an enormous task, “if the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over.”
Beyond the climate concerns, there’s the issue of pipeline safety—Keystone XL would traverse the entire country, from Montana to the Gulf of Mexico. Anyone unconcerned with potential pipeline failures should note the recent incident underneath the Yellowstone River, where an Exxon pipeline ruptured and spilled over 1,000 barrels of crude into the river.