“The biggest civil disobedience”

Guest post by Li Shicong, intern at chinadialogue in San Francisco and environmental studies major at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts.

The number of activists arrested in front of Washington’s White House during a protest against a proposed oil pipeline has increased to 843. The demonstration, organised by Tar Sands Action, will continue daily until September 3 – calling on the Obama administration to reject plans for the Keystone XL project between Canada and the southern United States. They have their work cut out: on August 26, the US State Department declared in its final environmental impact assessment that the pipleine would not cause significant ecological problems, and gave its backing to the scheme. 

The protest started on August 20. Participants carry out sit-in shifts at the White House fences – where there is a statute restricting such activities – to call attention to the urgent and serious issues associated with the pipeline. The leader of the demonstration and co-founder of climate-change campaign group, Bill McKibben, was arrested on the first weekend. He believes it will be "the biggest civil disobedience in a generation". 

Keystone XL is a 1661-mile (2673-kilometre) oil pipeline planned by Canadian oil company TransCanada. If it goes ahead, it will carry oil from Alberta, Canada to the US state of Texas. TransCanada claims the pipeline will bring up to US$20 billion into the US economy and at the same time create 20,000 American jobs between 2011 and 2012.

The US Department of Transportation claims that "pipelines are the safest, most reliable, and efficient manner of transporting energy products". However, activists say the production of tar sands oil – the type of oil Keystone XL will be transporting – emits three times more carbon dioxide than conventional drilling. Furthermore, tar sands operations consume and pollute nearly three gallons of water for every barrel of oil produced. It may also endanger the largest aquifer in the United States, Ogallala Aquifer, which is the source of potable water for 2 million people and irrigates 25% of US agriculture.

The protesters are also inspired by social injustice: poorer communities are disproportionately at risk from the pipeline. Keystone XL will pass through low-income neighbourhoods in the middle of the United States, whose residents may not be able to move away. University of Nebraska-Lincoln analysis of the Keystone XL pipeline estimates a frequency of 1.82 spills per year – 91 expected spills (greater than 50 barrels) in a 50-year period. However, in May, TransCanada’s Keystone I pipeline had its 12th spill in a single year, indicating these communities and the sensitive ecosystems around them may face continued degradation as a result of this project.

James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and other scientists, stressed in a letter to the White House on August 3 that the pipeline would be in neither the nation’s nor the planet’s interest, because of the energy waste and pollution caused by tar sands oil extraction. Hansen was among those arrested this week.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration gave its backing to the construction of Keystone XL pipeline on August 26, when it released the US State Department’s final environmental impact statement on the proposed project.

Now the administration faces a 90-day review period for public comment. The campaigners have put a bet on Obama’s final decision, hoping that he will say no to Keystone XL, rather than contradicting his promises to invest in clean energy and reduce carbon emissions.

Photo courtesy of chesapeakeclimate.