The White House was rocked Tuesday, not only by a 5.9-magnitude earthquake, but by the protests mounting outside its gates. More than 2,100 people say they’ll risk arrest there during the next two weeks. They oppose the Keystone XL pipeline project, designed to carry heavy crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
A “keystone” in architecture is the stone at the top of an arch that holds the arch together; without it, the structure collapses. By putting their bodies on the line—as more than 200 have already at the time of this writing—these practitioners of the proud tradition of civil disobedience hope to collapse not only the pipeline, but the fossil-fuel dependence that is accelerating disruptive global climate change.
Bill McKibben was among those already arrested. He is an environmentalist and author who founded the group 350.org, named after the estimated safe upper limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of 350 ppm (parts per million—the planet is currently at 390 ppm). In a call to action to join the protest, McKibben, along with others including journalist Naomi Klein, actor Danny Glover and NASA scientist James Hansen, wrote the Keystone pipeline is “a 1,500-mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent, a way to make it easier and faster to trigger the final overheating of our planet.”
The movement to oppose Keystone XL ranges from activists and scientists to indigenous peoples of the threatened Canadian plains and boreal forests, where the tar sands are located, to rural farmers and ranchers in the ecologically fragile Sand Hills region of Nebraska, to students and physicians.
Asked why the White House protests are taking place while President Obama is away on a family vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, McKibben replied: “We’ll be here when he gets back too. We’re staying for two weeks, every day. This is the first real civil disobedience of this scale in the environmental movement in ages.”
Just miles to the east of Martha’s Vineyard, and almost exactly 170 years earlier, on Nantucket, Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave, abolitionist, journalist and publisher, gave one of his first major addresses before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass is famous for stating one of grass-roots organizing’s central truths: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
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Demanding change is one thing, while getting change in Washington, D.C., is another, especially with the Republican-controlled House of Representatives’ hostility to any climate-change legislation. That is why the protests against Keystone XL are happening in front of the White House. Obama has the power to stop the pipeline. The Canadian corporation behind the project, TransCanada, has applied for a permit from the U.S. State Department to build the pipeline. If the State Department denies the permit, Keystone XL would be dead. The enormous environmental devastation caused by extracting petroleum from the tar sands might still move forward, but without easy access to the refineries and the U.S. market, it would certainly be slowed.
TransCanada executives are confident that the U.S. will grant the permit by the end of the year. Republican politicians and the petroleum industry tout the creation of well-paying construction jobs that would come from the project, and even enjoy some union support.
In response, two major unions, the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers Union, representing more than 300,000 workers, called on the State Department to deny the permit. In a joint press release, they said: “We need jobs, but not ones based on increasing our reliance on Tar Sands oil. … Many jobs could also be created in energy conservation, upgrading the grid, maintaining and expanding public transportation—jobs that can help us reduce air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and improve energy efficiency.”
Two Canadian women, indigenous actress Tantoo Cardinal, who starred in “Dances With Wolves,” and Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane in “Superman,” were arrested with about 50 others just before the earthquake hit Tuesday. Bill McKibben summed up: “It takes more than earthquakes and hurricanes to worry us—we’ll be out here through Sept. 3. Our hope is to send a Richter 8 tremor through the political system on the day Barack Obama says no to Big Oil and reminds us all why we were so happy when he got elected. The tar sands pipeline is his test.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.