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U.S. Climate Protests Shift to Blocking Keystone XL Pipeline Approval

Bill McKibben and allies say the proposed tar sands pipeline — which was barely on their radar a year ago — could galvanize U.S. action on climate

Jun 27, 2011
Bill McKibben

WASHINGTON—Conservationists are still fuming about President Obama's continued lack of follow-through on his promise to affix solar panels to the White House roof.

For now, however, they're willing to give him a pass on what they recognize would be mostly a symbolic gesture.

But a summons for civil disobedience at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue this summer indicates they are unwilling to be anywhere near as lenient about a lightning rod of a proposed pipeline. It's known as the Keystone XL and it could pump millions more barrels of heavy crude from Alberta, Canada's oil sands mines to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast if the federal government greenlights it.

"It was an enormous boost when Obama the candidate told us that the rise of the oceans would begin to slow and the planet start to heal on his watch," author and activist Bill McKibben told SolveClimate News in an interview from his Vermont home.

"We remember that he asked his supporters to keep pressuring him so he would do the right things. This is the kind of moment he must have meant. So we're going to try."

The founder of the advocacy organization 350.org collaborated with 10 other Canadian and American like-minded luminaries — including author and farmer Wendell Berry, actor Danny Glover and NASA climate scientist James Hansen — to issue a three-page plea for support.

"This will be a slightly longer letter than common for the Internet age," they wrote in a letter circulated early Thursday morning. "The short version is we want you to consider doing something hard: coming to Washington in the hottest and stickiest weeks of the summer and engaging in civil disobedience that will quite possibly get you arrested."

Why the Keystone XL?

Climate activists don't have much to rally around now that Congress is shunning global warming legislation. Energy legislation is stalled and stymied in a Senate where a Democratic caucus has a slim 53-47 advantage. And a GOP majority in the House is unveiling any and every tactic to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to deploy the Clean Air Act.

McKibben and his allies figure the $7 billion Keystone XL — which was barely on their environmental radar screen a year ago — could be a galvanizer because the 1,702-mile underground pipeline would be a "fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet."

"If the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over," Hansen, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration climatologist, explained about reclaiming a stable climate. "The principal requirement is that coal emissions must be phased out by 2030 and unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, must be left in the ground."

Politics are a metaphor for baseball, McKibben said, because presidents have to field issues that come out of left field and often swing and miss at curveballs when they are expecting fastballs over the middle of the plate.

"We don't expect or demand miracles out of politicians. That's not part of the contract," he continued. "But once in a while they get to make a straight-up decision and Keystone XL is one of those.  This one is more like tee ball. It's sitting on the stand and Obama can choose to hit it or not."

TransCanada Defends Record

With its Keystone XL proposal, pipeline giant TransCanada has proposed building and operating infrastructure designed to pump up to 900,000 barrels of heavy crude daily.

It has the potential to double — or perhaps triple — the amount of diluted bitumen flowing to this country from its northern neighbor, though critics say it likely won’t be needed until 2025 or 2030. Between 2000 and 2010, U.S. imports of diluted bitumen grew five-fold from 100,000 to 500,000 barrels per day. That number could balloon to 1.5 million barrels per day by 2019.

TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha didn't have any comment about the planned protest but he defended his Alberta-based company's safety record and attempts by the oil sands industry to lessen its carbon footprint.

"We have been in the pipeline business for over 50 years and we are a leader with one of the best pipeline safety and operating records in the industry," Cunha wrote in an e-mail response to a SolveClimate News inquiry.

He pointed to a report released June 6 by energy consultancy IHS CERA outlining that "the increase in greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands, and consequently from the proposed pipeline, is not as high as is often perceived." 

Environmental Review Ongoing

Due to the international nature of Keystone XL, a State Department team is tasked with reviewing TransCanada's request for a presidential permit required to cross the U.S.-Canadian border. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to issue a thumbs-up or thumbs-down before December. The Canadian National Energy Board approved its portion of the project in March 2010.

TransCanada already operates phase one of the project, simply called Keystone. In June 2010, that  pipeline, two years in the making, began carrying heavy crude oil from Alberta's tar sands to its southern terminus in Cushing, Okla., and its eastern terminus in Patoka, Ill.

After issuing its final environmental review of Keystone XL, U.S. regulations require the State Department to undergo a 90-day review to determine if the pipeline is in the "national interest."

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