Over the course of two weeks of sustained protest against the Keystone XL oil pipeline—lasting from August 20 to September 3—over 1,000 individuals were arrested while participating in a peaceful sit-in in front of the White House. Activists braving arrest were cheered on by thousands of additional protesters, and their actions were further supported by a petition with over 617,000 names opposed to TransCanada’s 1,700 mile pipeline which will stretch from tar sands deposits in Alberta, Canada to oil refineries in Texas. The Keystone XL protest, organized by TarSandsAction.org, is the largest civil disobedience action of our generation, and with it, scientists and environmentalists are demanding an end to the runaway climate change that further development of Alberta’s tar sands would inevitably cause.
Climate scientist James Hansen, who heads NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was arrested alongside other climate scientists on day nine of the peaceful sit-in. Hansen, who joined other scientific experts opposing the pipeline in a letter sent to Obama on August 3, has repeatedly called the Keystone XL pipeline the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet”—the Athabasca tar sands alone contain about 1.7 trillion barrels of extremely heavy crude oil— and essentially “game over” for global warming. He further explained in an August 29 interview with Inside Climate News that “what makes tar sands particularly odious is that the energy you get out in the end, per unit carbon dioxide, is poor. It’s equivalent to burning coal in your automobile.”
The process of extracting tar sands involves clear-cutting boreal forests (releasing CO2 into the atmosphere), scooping up the namesake sand/bitumen mixture, cooking it with massive quantities of water and chemicals (which are then pumped into leaky “tailings ponds,” poisoning local water supplies), and finally combining it with lighter forms of petroleum so it can be pumped through a pipeline. In a July 2010 report, the Environmental Protection Agency found that greenhouse gas emissions from Canadian tar sands are “82% greater than the average crude refined in the U.S., on a well-to-tank basis.” Yet despite the warnings of leading scientists and environmental organizations, the State Department’s Environmental Impact Statement on the pipeline released on August 26 found that it will have “limited adverse environmental impacts.” With their statement—which also minimalized TransCanada’s already shaky record of leaks from existing pipelines—the State Department is essentially claiming that the U.S. might as well pipe in the most inefficient, dirtiest source of oil on the planet, because if we don’t, someone else will.
I attended the protests as an observer on their last day, September 3rd, and heard many stories of disillusionment from environmentalists who had rallied to Obama’s side in 2008. Many former Obama staffers took part in the civil disobedience actions, and they, like the millions of voters they helped mobilize in 2008, hoped Obama’s election would usher in a presidential administration actually willing to listen to reason and science. Yet I was also inspired by the energy of many newly-minted environmentalists, many of whom were carrying banners and signs with the number “350.” The story of how the number “350” has become a rallying cry for 21st century environmentalists can be found in the mission statement of the organization 350.org, another key leader of the protest:
350 means climate safety. To preserve our planet, scientists tell us we must reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 392 parts per million to below 350 ppm.
A number representative of a vision for a planet where carbon emissions are curtailed in favor of more efficient renewable energy technologies, 350 parts per million (ppm) stands for environmental sustainability. 350.org is by no means a “radical” organization, and they are not advocating for a return to pre-Industrial Revolution CO2 levels, which were at about 275 ppm. What they are calling for is for the world to prioritize human safety over corporate greed. 350.org also uses “ppm” to refer to a “people-powered movement.” People-power, such as the Keystone XL Protest, is exactly what the U.S. needs to stand up to the unlimited lobbying power of today’s nihilistic “corporate citizens,” including ExxonMobil who recently spent millions on advertisements praising scientific innovation behind tar sands oil extraction and the Koch Brothers, the oil billionaires infamous for bankrolling the Tea Party and who help million-dollar donors contribute to anti-science politicians in league with the Religious Right.
Yet while just as insidious as the Koch Brothers, even the Religious Right’s massive lobby doesn’t haven’t a complete stranglehold on faith-inspired energy policy—in fact there is a coalition of progressive religious organizations aptly named Interfaith Power and Light working to shine truth on global warming, and they were one of the main organizations behind the final day of Keystone XL protest. On their website they have a statement entitled Keystone XL Tar Sands Oil Pipeline Not in the National Interest, which debunks the lie of “energy security” often used to defend the pipeline: “While the project is being framed as a solution to America’s energy needs, the pipeline is actually aimed at America’s Gulf ports and global export.” At the protest I spoke with Joelle Novey, director of Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, and was impressed by her understanding of both energy policy and humanism, and she furthermore discussed how pleased she was to count the humanistic Washington Ethical Society as a member congregation.
In addition to 350.org and Interfaith Power & Light, other environmental organizations with large contingents present at the Keystone XL Protest included Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Rising Tide, Peaceful Uprising, Indigenous Environmental Network, and many smaller grassroots organizations. As Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org said in an interview on DemocracyNow.org on August 29:
All the environmental groups said last week that this was now the premier challenge on the environment for President Obama between now and the election. And they said, we expect nothing less than his veto…There’s never been a purer test of whether or not we’re prepared to stand up to climate change or not.
Shortly after a police van carted away the last remaining participants in the civil disobedience sit-in, another dozen activists walked an artistic black “pipeline” inscribed with the word “Hopeless” in front of the White House. It is now up to Obama to decide whether he will live up to his campaign promises or doom the U.S. to a future of failed energy policy.