Going to Jail for the Environment

President Obama can choose between a clean energy future and dirty tar sands oil

As you read this, two starkly different visions of Maryland's energy future are clashing on a sidewalk outside the White House.

One vision embraces the idea of developing clean-energy wind farms off the coast of Ocean City. Those wind farms could one day power millions of electric cars in our state at a price three times cheaper than gasoline -- forever.

The other vision embraces a massive, 1,700-mile pipeline from Canada to Texas full of "tar sands oil," the dirtiest petroleum fuel. This proposed pipeline, if built, would steer our nation toward another generation of polluting automobile use.

We are longtime Maryland residents, and we're usually law-abiding citizens. Our resumes include Sunday school teaching, Little League baseball coaching, an Eagle Scout award, and leadership roles at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. But what's happening at the White House right now is so pivotal to the future of our state and our nation that we decided to take an unusual step: We got arrested. Peacefully, outside the White House lawn over the weekend, we sat down with dozens of other protesters until police led us away in handcuffs, while a crowd of spectators from Maryland, D.C. and beyond chanted, "Wind mills, not oil spills!"

This protest began Saturday and is scheduled to continue daily for two full weeks. Close to 1,000 Americans in total are expected to get arrested at the White House as we did, earning a ride to the police station and a "disorderly conduct" misdemeanor charge. Nebraska ranchers are coming to say "no" to tar sands and "yes" to Midwestern wind farms. Arizona students are coming to say "no" to tar sands and "yes" to utility-scale solar farms.

We picked President Barack Obama's house for this sit-in because the president, by himself, with no input from Congress, can decide the fate of the tar sands pipeline. By law, mega-corporation TransCanada needs a "presidential permit" before it can build the pipeline across our border. If the company gets the permit, an area the size of Florida will be utterly destroyed by mining for this oily, tar-like substance in Alberta Province. Then the pipeline journey will begin, with farms and park lands from Montana to Texas at serious risk of damage from pipeline spills.

Plus, full exploitation of Canada's carbon-intensive tar sands could put up to 400 gigatons of new carbon pollution into the atmosphere. That's enough to constitute "game over" status for efforts to prevent runaway climate change, according to America's top climate scientist, James Hansen ofNASA.

So we could court multilayered disaster with this tar sands pipeline -- or, in places like Maryland, we could build offshore wind farms instead. Gov. Martin O'Malley has proposed a bill which, if passed, would guarantee construction of a moderate-sized wind farm (about 100 turbines) 10 miles off the Maryland coast. This wind farm alone would create enough energy to run 500,000 electric cars at the astonishingly low price equivalent of less than $1.50 per gallon. The wind farm would also create about 2,500 new jobs for our economy. And it would save the state $4 billion in health costs, thanks to the dirty, polluting energy it would replace, according to health experts.

And this is just the start. A study by the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation found that Maryland has offshore wind potential equal to two-thirds of the state's current electricity demand. That's a lot of wind-powered electric cars down the road. And nearly every American state has some version of this clean-energy story, involving wind, solar, geothermal, biofuels, and energy-efficiency gains.

But we'll never fully realize this potential tomorrow if we embrace dirty fuels like tar sands today. The $7 billion "Keystone XL" pipeline from Canada is an infrastructure shove off the cliff. If we build it, the oil will come.

Conversely, a "no" from Mr. Obama would have lasting positive effects. It would send unambiguous signals to Detroit and to American consumers everywhere that we've finally turned a corner on our dirty-energy addiction. And, frankly, it would go a long way in shoring up Mr. Obama's badly demoralized base of progressive voters. The president, once again, can be a hero. He can create change we can believe in.

Big Oil lobbyists, of course, are bombarding the president with demands he embrace the pipeline. That's why we got arrested and why 50 to 75 Americans will do the same daily until Sept. 3. It's a dose of people power as the president approaches his autumn decision.

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