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Tar Sands Protesters: "Which Side Are You On, Obama? Which Side Are You On?"

Determined oilsands pipeline protesters can't hide disappointment

Sheldon Alberts

More than 1,000 demonstrators have been arrested in the past two weeks in front of the White House as they protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline project. (Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — As hundreds of anti-oilsands activists gathered for a final day of civil disobedience Saturday at the White House, the sizable crowd erupted in familiar songs of protest.

One lilting verse carried across the White House lawn louder than the others: "Which side are you on, Obama? Which side are you on?"

After two weeks of daily sit ins, more than 1,250 arrests and two administration decisions that infuriated U.S. environmental groups, many of the activists departed Washington emboldened by the success of their demonstrations.

But they were also dispirited with a U.S. president who they increasingly believe is betraying campaign promises to put green issues at the top of his agenda.

"I think we have been able to galvanize the environmental movement in a way that it hasn't been in a long time," said Bill McKibben, who organized 14 days of protests against Alberta-based TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline.

"That said, I don't know whether any of that is strong enough to match the power of the oil industry."

Since Aug. 20, the activists had gathered each morning — save one when Hurricane Irene passed by the U.S. capital — outside the White House in the hopes of persuading U.S. President Barack Obama to deny a presidential permit allowing the 2,700 kilometre pipeline to be built.

The protest started out modestly enough, with 65 people arrested on the first day. But rather than lose steam during Washington's humid dog days of summer, the sit ins gained momentum.

On Saturday, more than 200 people were arrested after refusing to leave the White House sidewalk on Pennsylvania Avenue. Hundreds more rallied a few metres away in Lafayette Park.

The crowd was large enough that United States Park Police officers brought a District of Columbia city bus — powered by "clean natural gas" — to transport the arrestees to a precinct for processing.

"First thing, clearly we have managed to take what had been a pretty obscure and regional issue and make it a national one," McKibben said of the debate over Keystone XL, which would carry up to 900,000 barrels of oil per day from Hardisty, Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas.

"We have made it clear that Barack Obama himself is on the hook, that it is going to be his choice (whether to approve the project)."

But amid the festive atmosphere — which on Saturday included a rock band, a kazoo player and one protester who symbolically tarred and feathered himself — there was an undercurrent of disappointment.

Only a week ago, the U.S. State Department released a final environmental impact study on Keystone XL that found the pipeline would have no significant impact on natural resources on its route. The study largely dismissed environmentalists' concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and the threat of oil spills along its route.


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Several protesters were overheard Saturday complaining about a more recent Obama decision — his announcement Friday that his administration was abandoning plans to impose new anti-smog rules on U.S. industry.

Obama's move to block his own Environmental Protection Agency's plan to beef up Bush-era ozone standards was seen in the green community as a cave-in to Republicans, who allege the new limits would kill jobs.

But at the police barricades in front of the White House, the president's move was also being interpreted as a sign Obama was more likely than ever to give Keystone XL the green light.

The size of Saturday's anti-oilsands crowd was larger than previous sit ins, in part, because of "anger" over the anti-smog ruling, McKibben said.

The environmental author said he was "stupefied" by Obama's decision, which he said was more typical of something a Republican president would do.

"My first response was, 'How did (Republicans) manage to snatch Obama and put a stunt double in his place?'" McKibben said.

"My guess is, of the people who were arrested, 95 per cent of them voted for the guy in the White House in 2008. And everyone is just desperate to see that guy they elected back in there."

The White House protests have been peaceful and the relationship between activists and police was for the most part cordial.

High-profile environmentalists arrested in the past two weeks included actresses Margot Kidder, Daryl Hannah and Tantoo Cardinal. Former U.S. vice president Al Gore issued a public statement applauding the protesters for "bravely" standing up against Canadian oil.

Linda Rosier, an Ontario activist who was arrested Friday alongside Canadian author Naomi Klein, was back at the White House on Saturday.

"We're not giving up hope. We are appealing to Mr. Obama, and his heart, and what he hopes for his children," said Rosier.

Like almost all of the activists who were arrested over the past two week, Rosier was released after paying a $100 fine and receiving a minor citation.

The Obama administration says it will make a final decision on Keystone XL before the end of the year.

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