Monday, August 22, 2011

Pipeline protesters arrested outside White House

By Sheldon Alberts, Postmedia News Washington Correspondent August 20, 2011

WASHINGTON — They came to the White House planning to get arrested, and very quickly got their wish.

Dozens of environmental activists opposed to the Keystone XL oilsands pipeline were led away in plastic handcuffs after staging a sit-in Saturday aimed at persuading President Barack Obama to deny a permit allowing construction of the 2,700-kilometre project.

The protest marked the opening of a two-week campaign of civil disobedience that organizers hope will scuttle Calgary-based TransCanada Corp.’s $7-billion pipeline, which would carry up to 900,000 barrels of crude from northern Alberta to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

“I’m doing this because this is the clearest environmental test — on both sides of this border — that we have faced in a very long time,” said environmental author Bill McKibben, the chief organizer of the protests.

“The tarsands are the second largest pool of carbon on the planet. If we start burning them in large quantities . . . it is essentially game over for the climate.”

McKibben was one of about 70 protesters who refused orders from the U.S. Park Police to disperse after lining up on the sidewalk along Pennsylvania Avenue, directly in front of the White House entrance.

A bullhorn-wielding SWAT team officer gave the demonstrators three warnings before police began removing the demonstrators one by one. The protesters responded to each of the warnings with a chorus of “Hey-ho, Keystone XL has got to go.”

None of the activists resisted arrest.

“We have got to end tarsands exploitation period if we are going to continue to live on this planet. It’s going to fry the planet,” said Tom Weis, a climate activist from Boulder, Colorado.

“I am risking getting arrested to send a message to the Obama administration that we are not going to stand for this,” added Weis, who is planning a bicycle journey along the proposed Keystone XL route, from the Canadian border to Texas, in October.

Obama wasn’t home to witness the sit in. He and his family are vacationing at Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

Still, administration officials are taking notice of the pipeline opponents and recently agreed to a new round of public hearings this fall on the project.

The State Department, which has jurisdiction over pipelines that cross an international boundary, has promised a decision on the long-delayed pipeline by the end of the year.

Oil industry proponents say Keystone XL is vital to America’s energy security and would create thousands of jobs at a time when the U.S. economy is perilously close to entering another recession.

In the past month, two members of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet have been in Washington pressing for its approval.

“We need Canadians to understand that for the sake of the planet’s atmosphere, that oil simply has to stay in the ground. I know it is inconvenient, but that is the situation we are in,” McKibben said.

“We are very hopeful that the good people of Canada will start to take more environmental responsibility.”

Opponents warn Keystone XL poses unacceptable risks to the environment because it promotes further development of the oilsands. There are also concerns about the possibility of a spill in environmentally sensitive areas, like Nebraska’s Ogallala Aquifer, along the pipeline route.

Several high profile progressive activists, including actors Danny Glover, Mark Ruffalo and Margot Kidder have promised to participate in the protests over the next two weeks.

Canadian opponents, including author Naomi Klein and Council of Canadians chair Maude Barlow, are planning to attend protests later this month and in early September.

On the first day of the sit in, a handful of Canadians were on hand.

Linda Rosier and Liz Armstrong, both of Guelph, Ont., sat on the White House sidewalk as police put up barricades and ordered everyone to leave. They remained until receiving a second warning, then left before the arrests began.

Legal advisers to the activists have told Canadians they risk being deported or barred from re-entering the U.S.

“President Obama is a hero of mine, and I know he has the ability to deny the application for the pipeline,” said Rosier.

“We know that is where his heart is.”

Patricia Warwick, of Toronto, watched the arrests from across Pennsylvania Avenue, but plans to participate in Sunday’s sit in.

“I am a bit concerned about (being barred from the U.S.), but I have accepted that,” Warwick said.

“I am generally peaceful. I go to protests but I have never taken a risk. I feel this is serious enough that I have got to take a risk,” Warwick said. “I have got to make my voice known. So I am prepared to be arrested.”

Among the environmentalists arrested Saturday was Gus Speth, the former chairman of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality during the Carter administration. “If (getting arrested) is what it takes to get attention, to make people understand what is at stake, then it’s worth it,” said Speth. “After 30 years of inaction (on global warming), it is the thing I feel I have to do, because I have done everything else.”

Many of the U.S. protesters on Saturday wore Obama campaign buttons from the 2008 election, to remind the president that he draws substantial support from the environmental community.

“I dug out my old Obama ‘08 button from the sock drawer, and I am wearing it with some mixture of hope and trepidation,” McKibben said before his arrest.

While Republicans have been able to block comprehensive climate legislation in Congress, Obama holds the power on Keystone XL to himself.

“We want Obama to behave like the candidate Obama in 2008, to really stand up, and this time he can, because Congress isn’t in the way.”

The Keystone XL pipeline has been a source of division within the Obama administration and on Capitol Hill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently criticized the State Department’s early environmental assessments of the pipeline’s impact as weak.

A final environmental impact assessment is expected as early as next week.

The Keystone XL issue “has really become symbolic about what the Obama administration is willing to do,” said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the international program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Are they willing to live up to their promises on climate change, or are they going to take us in the wrong direction, towards more tarsands dependence?”

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