Amid Cheers, NASA Chief Is Arrested at Oil Sands Pipeline Protests

James Hansen, the 70-year-old renowned climate scientist, was the 112th of 140 arrested on day 10 of the Keystone XL pipeline sit-ins

James Hansen was arrested on Monday, Aug. 29, on day 10 of the anti- Keystone XL pipeline protests at the White House. In total, 521 participants have been arrested. Credit: Ben Powless

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WASHINGTON—A few minutes after 11 a.m. Monday, climate scientist James Hansen sits down on a patch of sidewalk in front of a green banner proclaiming “Witness for Climate and Creation.” The White House looms in the background.

The head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City pulls his tan fedora snug around his ears to block the sun and hugs his knees to his chest. Then he opens his mouth to harmonize with a chorus of 160-plus voices blending on chants that included “Heal the Planet,” “Stand Together,” “Not in Our Name” and “Keep Your Promises.”

Hansen is the center of attention on day 10 of a two-week peaceful sit-in to protest a Canadian company’s proposal to construct a $7 billion, 1,702-mile pipeline to pump diluted bitumen—a particularly dirty type of heavy crude—from the oil sands mines of Alberta to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
At 1:20 p.m., a U.S. Park Police officer beckons to the suit-clad Hansen with his index finger. The 70-year-old grandfather arises to cheers and applause from the fellow 30 or so demonstrators still left on the sidewalk and the hundred-plus still singing, hollering and strumming a guitar across the street in Lafayette Park.

Hansen—the 112th of the 140 arrested Monday, many from the faith community—extends his hands behind his back so the police officer can cinch the black plastic handcuffs around his wrists. Then, he stands with his brown dress shoes spread several feet apart while another officer frisks him. At least a dozen photographers document the scene.

Five minutes later, Hansen emerges from a white tarpaulin where his mug shot was snapped. Somebody yelled “Thank you, Jim.” As Hansen holds his fedora aloft and cracks a smile, protesters in the park break into a verse of “We love Jim Hansen” and “Don’t want no pipeline” to the tune of the traditional gospel song “Down by the Riverside.” Then he ducks, climbs into the awaiting paddy wagon and disappears.

Hansen—who has been arrested a couple of times before for protesting the harvesting of fossil fuels—regularly criticizes the Keystone XL pipeline as the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.” The Obama administration is expected to issue a decision on the international project by the end of the year.

A magnitude-5.8-magnitude, Virginia-centered earthquake last Tuesday and the force of Hurricane Irene’s bluster Saturday and Sunday have not deterred the protesters, who are affiliated with a grass-roots movement called Tar Sands Action. To date, 521 participants have been arrested, according to police and organizer records.

Monday was an uncharacteristically humidity-free August day in the nation’s capital with temperatures hovering near 80.

At a pre-arrest rally in the park, Hansen reminded the boisterous crowd of then-Sen. Barack Obama’s victory speech in November 2008. He and his wife listened to Obama’s inspirational words from their Pennsylvania farmhouse. Hansen recounted being so moved that he had turned his face away so his wife wouldn’t see his tears.
The president-to-be’s campaign promises had led him to believe that Obama had the tenacity and knowledge to make climate change a signature issue. Hansen was hopeful Obama would communicate directly with citizens instead of letting politicians hijack that agenda. It’s difficult and rare, he added, to find leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill who are strong enough to tell the truth and courageously commit to a cause.

Now, Hansen fears President Obama will fumble his defining moment on global warming.

“If the tar sands pipeline is approved, we will be back and we will grow,” he said. “For the sake of our children and our grandchildren, we must find somebody who is working for our dream.”

Police tried to nip the demonstrators’ acts of civil disobedience early on by arresting and jailing protesters. Vermont author, professor and key protest organizer Bill McKibben and 52 other spent two nights in jail after the sit-in’s first day. Since then, police have resorted to the “post-and-forfeit” option. Hansen and hundreds of others have been released the same day they are arrested after forking over a $100 fine.