Texans join activists at Keystone XL rally in D.C.

Thousands of environmental activists are descending on the nation’s capital today for a rally against the Keystone XL pipeline that would ferry oil sands crude from Canada to refineries along the Gulf Coast.

The protesters — who are arriving on buses from Texas, New York and the heartland — hope to convince President Barack Obama that he must reject the $7 billion pipeline because it would expand the marketplace for oil sands crude generally harvested through mining or more energy-intensive methods that rely on steam.

“If we’re serous about climate change, we have to start leaving carbon in the ground, and this is clearly the place to start,” said Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, one of the groups that organized the event.

If Obama rejects the pipeline — subject to State Department approval because it would cross the U.S.-Canada border — it would send a powerful message around the globe, McKibben said.

“It would represent the first time that a world leader had canceled a major project because it would do major damage to the climate,” McKibben said. “That would be a legacy (Obama could leave) and a powerful marker to lay down to the rest of the world.”

Despite clear skies, it is a brisk day in Washington, with snow showers predicted and temperatures in the 30s. But that isn’t deterring protesters, said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the international program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“It’s going to be a cold day, but we’re expecting tens of thousands of people,” she said. “The responds to this rally has just been overwhelming. It shows how eager people are to come out and take a stand for climate change.”

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.

Supporters of the project also say the pipeline would give the U.S. greater access to crude from a North American ally while providing a new option for transporting oil harvested in Montana and North Dakota and fostering jobs in 49 states.

Although the Obama administration rejected a cross-border permit for the northern portion of Keystone XL early last year, when the State Department said a new route required more environmental analysis, TransCanada Corp., is already constructing the southern part of the pipeline.

Jerry Hightower, whose family farm in rural northeast Texas now contains a stretch of the pipeline, was arrested earlier this week along with nearly four dozen other protesters at the White House.

Hightower said he is frustrated that many people believe the pipeline has been stopped, just because the northern section hasn’t been approved.

“I am on a debunking campaign to say this pipe exists,” Hightower said.

Yudith Nieto, who lives in the refining community of Manchester, near Houston, also was arrested at the White House protest, and is in Washington, D.C. for the rally today.

““I am committed to amplifying the voices of communities of color that are systematically silenced, like mine, that are being affected by environmentally destructive industries, and experience environmental racism and classism,” said Nieto, who was born in Mexico.

Another Texan expected at today’s rally is Hilton Kelley, from Port Arthur — Keystone XL’s endpoint –who has been recognized for his environmental work in the community.

Kelley founded the group “Community In-power and Development Association,” which trains local residents to monitor air quality in the shadow of refineries in the region.

Today’s protest begins with speeches on the national mall at noon. Activists later plan to form a “human pipeline” and walk along a major thoroughfare in the capital city.