Pipeline protesters arrested at White House

Environmental activists — including actress Darryl Hannah, former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass, climate scientist James Hansen and a Texas landowner — were arrested at the White House on Wednesday in a bid to convince President Barack Obama to reject the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

The 48 arrested protesters had gathered in front of the east gate of the White House to make their case against the $7 billion project, which would ferry diluted bitumen from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries, potentially expanding the market for oil sands crude harvested in Alberta using more energy-intensive techniques than conventional supplies.

Some handcuffed themselves to the White House fence with cable ties proclaiming “Reject KXL Pipeline.” After blocking a main thoroughfare in front of the White House and rejecting police officers’ requests to move, the activists were arrested.

Among the activists were Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune and other members of the organization, which endorsed the act of civil disobedience for the first time in its 120-year history. Other participants included Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, civil rights activist Julian Bond and Texan Jerry Hightower, whose land is in the pipeline’s path.

By midday, several of the protesters had been led away in handcuffs, including Sierra Club president Allison Chin.

At the time, Obama was nowhere near the White House: instead, the president was touring a factory in Asheville, N.C.

In a joint letter Wednesday, the participants said they had “a moral obligation to stand for immediate, bold action to solve climate disruption.” And the activists stressed that they weren’t protesting the president, but instead, “are here to encourage and support him.”

“President Obama has the executive authority and the mandate from the American people to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline right now,” the activists said. “We risk arrest because a global crisis unfolds before our eyes. We have the solutions to this climate crisis.”

Brune said the Sierra Club’s decision to participate underscores the importance of the issue.

“For the first time in the Sierra Club’s 120-year history, we have joined the ranks of visionaries of the past and present to engage in civil disobedience, knowing that the issue at hand is so critical, it compels the strongest defensible action,” Brune said. “We cannot afford to allow the production, transport, export and burning of the dirtiest oil on Earth via the Keystone XL pipeline.”

Environmentalists say that Keystone XL could contribute to climate change by expanding the marketplace for Canada’s oil sands crude. Because the bitumen in Canada’s oil sands is harvested through mining and energy-intensive steam-assisted techniques, it may have a higher carbon footprint than conventional crude.

The move comes just hours after Obama used his State of the Union address to commit to using his executive power to combat climate change if Congress doesn’t act first. McKibben said that while he was glad to see Obama “ratcheting up the rhetoric about climate change, the test of that rhetoric will be what he does about . . . the Keystone XL pipeline, with its freight of nearly a million barrels a day of the dirtiest oil on earth.”

Pipeline advocates reject opponents’ assertions that diluted bitumen from Canada is significantly dirtier than the crudes from Venezuela and other nations that it would likely displace in Gulf Coast refineries.

Separately, TransCanada Corp., is already moving ahead with construction of the southern leg of the pipeline, including the stretch through Texas, which does not hinge on the State Department’s decision.

Obama’s State Department is finalizing an environmental review of the pipeline, following TransCanada Corp.’s decision to alter its planned route around environmentally sensitive areas in Nebraska. The State Department is tasked with determining whether the project is in the “national interest” and warrants a permit because it would cross the U.S.-Canada border. The State Department has said it is on track to make its final decision in March or April.

Supporters of the project say the pipeline would give the U.S. greater access to crude from a North American ally and provide a new transportation option for surging oil harvested in Montana and North Dakota — all while creating jobs and economic activity.

The Obama administration already rejected a cross-border permit for the northern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline early last year, after the State Department concluded it needed more study and an environmental analysis of the proposed path through Nebraska.

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Read ongoing FuelFix coverage of the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline:

Man walking route of Keystone XL (Feb. 6)
Obama faces angry liberals over pipeline (Feb. 1)
Despite injunction, activists continue plans to thwart Keystone XL (Jan. 29)
Keystone XL work veers onto wrong land (Jan. 28)
53 senators push Obama to approve Keystone XL (Jan. 23)
Nebraska governor OKs Keystone XL route (Jan. 22)
Study: Keystone’s tar sands waste more damaging than coal (Jan. 18)
Keystone XL prompts dueling studies (Jan. 17)
Keystone XL foes say fed study should consider climate effects (Dec. 20)