No one expected it to get this big. Yesterday, a whole lot of people gathered in Washington, DC, and encircled the White House to protest Keystone XL, a 1,700-mile oil pipeline that, if approved by President Obama, would run from Alberta’s Tar Sands to Texas. Event organizers estimated that 12,000 protesters showed up. That number may be swollen, but not by much; there was a large enough crowd to create a shoulder-to-shoulder ring of people three-to-five rows deep on the four streets surrounding the big house. The action was the culmination of a two-month grassroots campaign organized by an activist coalition, Tar Sands Action, that includes groups like 350.org, Rainforest Action Network, and Tim DeChristopher’s Peaceful Uprising. The public leader of the anti-Keystone campaign is author and Outside contributor Bill McKibben.
The anti-Keystone campaign began in earnest in August with a two-week sit-in at the White House, which got 1,253 people arrested. During that action the State Department endorsed the pipeline; so did Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Obama didn’t acknowledge the demonstrators, and it appeared that government’s plan was to let the protest fade and greenlight Keystone XL, which would transport up to 830,000 barrels of Tar Sands oil per day to refineries on the Gulf coast. Soon after the August action, 350.org co-founder Jamie Henn told me that the plan was to focus on “Obama, Obama, Obama,” and ratchet up the pressure. Which they did. McKibben, who must type really quickly, has cranked out a book’s worth number of anti-Keystone editorials, focusing on TransCanada’s lobbyists’ ties to the State Department; the likelihood of spills; the fishy job creation projections of pipeline advocates; and the fact that the State Department hired a TransCanada subsidiary to review the environmental impacts of the pipeline.
This last revelation caused 11 14 members of Congress to call for an investigation by the State Department’s Inspector General. The pressure rose. A number of big Democratic donors said they’d withhold funding for Obama’s campaign unless he blocks Keystone. Last week, Obama told a Nebraska television station that he’ll make the decision himself and addressed concerns about the “health and safety” of the American people. The pro-pipeline Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is waiting anxiously on the decision. All of which is to say that the Keystone issue has mushroomed into a huge environmental battle and a political migraine for a president heading into an election year.
Sunday was a scene. McKibben emceed a pre-rally gathering in Lafayette Square, where a series of speakers—actor Mark Ruffalo, Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen, NASA climatologist James Hansen, NRDC cofounder John H. Adams—fired up the crowd. Jim Wallis, founder of the progressive evangelical Sojourners society and a spiritual advisor to President Obama, also spoke out against Keystone, which demonstrators latched onto as a good sign.
One sign read, “BARACK, GRAB YOUR BALLS.” Another, “I WISH MY BOYFRIEND WAS AS DIRTY AS THE TAR SANDS.” A staffer from the Center of Biological Diversity rocked an impressive polar bear costume. There was a guy in a full fly-fishing getup. But the overall feeling was serious and urgent. This wasn’t a tie-dye and drum-circle affair. Many in the crowd were college students, yes, but there were also a lot of elderly and middle-aged people wearing ties and marching with their children. Some of the demonstrators organized for the President in 2008. Much of the talk focused on debunking TransCanada’s claims that the pipeline will create a lot of jobs. “The only study that wasn’t funded by TransCanada shows that this will kill as many jobs as it creates,” McKibben yelled. The crowd screamed back. The president of the Hip Hop Caucus, Reverend Lennox Yearwood, Jr, yelled, “This is not a game! This cannot go forward!” The crowd screamed louder. Then it circled the White House. I walked around the ring, which was thick with people. On E Street, which sits behind the White House, I passed Louie Psihoyos, director of the Academy Award winning documentary The Cove, who was also circling the protest with a camera, wearing a wide smile. McKibben made a lap of the circle, shaking hands and pumping his fist.
So what’s next? The ball’s still in Obama’s court. The State Department is expected to make its recommendation to him by the end of the year. Keystone supporters point to fact that we still consume a lot of oil and the prospect of new jobs. Detractors scoff at those job projections. A particularly questionable TransCanada study suggesting that the pipeline would create 250,000 jobs included positions for dancers and speech therapists, as the Washington Post reports. (It’s unclear how a crude pipeline will subsidize the arts.) Then there are the increased emissions, the fact that some of that oil will be shipped to foreign markets in Mexico and Venezuela, and the risks of spills—the pipeline would run through the massive Ogallala aquifer. TransCanada’s handling of the mess has been less than slick, too; the company is already suing landowners in Texas and Nebraska under eminent domain.
On Monday, the Inspector General of the State Department announced that it would, in fact, conduct a special review of the department’s analysis of Keystone XL.1 Now there’s speculation that Obama could delay the decision until after next year’s election. But TransCanada executive chief Russ Girling has said that a delay could seriously hinder the pipeline by forcing American refineries to sign contracts with other fuel sources. If Obama wants Keystone to go ahead he has to say so, and soon. What the protesters showed yesterday is that doing so will be politically difficult, to say the least.
1 Politico reported after this article was originally published that the inspector general's office agreed to do a special review of whether the State department’s analysis of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline project was done properly.