The largest act of civil disobedience by environmentalists in decades began outside the White House on August 20, as more than seventy people were arrested, including author and activist Bill McKibben, during a protest against the Keystone XL pipeline, a project of the TransCanada Corporation. If approved by the Obama administration, it 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 holding large banners reading “Climate change is not in our national interest,” were warned three times by the US Park Police to move along, then were handcuffed and removed after they refused. Most of them spent the next two nights in jail. 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 protests have been organized by the grassroots group 350.org, a global alliance of activists combating climate change. Several Nation contributors, including Naomi Klein, have joined the call for civil disobedience against such environmentally destructive projects.
The Keystone pipeline would carry oil gouged from the “tar sands” of Alberta—areas where soil is thick with bitumen (also known as asphalt), which can be refined into synthetic crude. Parts of Alberta have already been ravaged by the extraction, and the refining process creates twice the greenhouse gases as conventional production.
The State Department—which has jurisdiction over the project, since the pipeline would cross an international border—is scheduled to release an environmental assessment soon. The White House will then have ninety days to decide whether to grant a permit for the pipeline. The activist campaign seeks to persuade the administration to deny the permit. Since Congress is not involved in this decision, the White House is the decisive chokepoint for the project.
The Alberta tar sands represent the second-largest repository of oil in the world. Climate scientists are horrified by the prospect of a project that would pump so much carbon into the atmosphere. McKibben has noted that if all the oil were extracted overnight, it would increase the carbon in the atmosphere from 393 parts per million to 550 parts per million—a devastating increase. And NASA climate scientist James Hansen recently wrote that since phasing out existing carbon emissions is already a colossal task, “if the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over.”
Beyond the climate concerns, there’s the issue of safety—Keystone XL would traverse the entire country, from Montana to the Gulf of Mexico. Anyone unconcerned about potential pipeline failures should note the recent incident beneath the Yellowstone River, where an ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured and spilled more than 1,000 barrels of crude into the water.
There are, of course, massive financial interests behind the construction of Keystone XL. Commercials promoting the energy and alleged job-creating potential of tar sands extraction are ubiquitous on television, particularly during news programming. The industry, led by the American Petroleum Institute, has launched a huge advertising and lobbying push.
“There is enormous pressure coming down on the White House from the fossil fuels industry,” McKibben told activists outside the White House as they prepared their nonviolent protest. “These are the richest people. They are the most powerful people on our planet. They usually win. We have to find a different currency to work in. Our currency today and for the next two weeks is our bodies and our creativity and our spirit. And that’s all we’ve got to put up against all that money, and we will find out if it’s enough.”
McKibben described the decision on the pipeline as the definitive “environmental test for Barack Obama” in his first term. Many of the activists wore buttons from his 2008 presidential campaign, during which Obama famously invoked the moment “when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” a promise that, if elected, his administration would set the country on a new environmental course. If the president rejects the pipeline, McKibben told reporters, “it will send a surge of electricity through all of the people who voted for him three years ago. It’ll be the reminder of why we were so enamored with this guy in 2008.”
When the arrests began, the activists—including FireDogLake founder Jane Hamsher, Lt. Dan Choi and Vermont Law School professor Gus Speth—repeated chants of “Hey hey, ho ho, Keystone XL’s got to go.” As tourists watched, they were handcuffed with zip ties, led one by one into a Park Police tent and loaded into the back of a large van. The arresting officers gave the activists water over the course of the two-hour process, which took place in sweltering late-summer heat. Several activists noted that if Keystone XL isn’t stopped, the hottest weather is surely yet to come.