By Jim Snyder
Donny Williams didn’t spend his weekend in Washington walking around the Tidal Basin taking in the cherry blossoms.
He was training people how to get arrested.
Williams, a 36-year-old environmental activist from Baltimore, taught a class in the nation’s capital on civil disobedience, part of a last-ditch campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline, which critics view as a threat to the climate.
The sessions were held over the past two weekends in eight U.S. cities, including Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. While critics say they remain hopeful that President Barack Obama will reject Keystone, the tutorials anticipate that a U.S. State Department-led review will find the project to be in the nations’ interest to build.
“We’re trying to create as much pressure as we can on President Obama,” Williams said in a phone interview. “We want to personalize this. This isn’t just the faceless masses.”
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TransCanada Corp. applied more than five years ago for a permit to build the pipeline across the U.S.-Canadian border to link Alberta’s oil sands with refineries in Texas and Louisiana. Each new milestone in the process leads supporters and opponents to marshal forces. The last was the release of a final environmental review by the State Department in January, which had prompted the submission of more than 1 million public comments.
May marks the end of the period during which eight federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and Energy Department, had a chance to comment on the project.
After that, a decision date may finally be near on the project.
Secretary of State John Kerry will make a recommendation, weighing factors including Keystone’s environmental, economic and diplomatic impacts. Obama will then make the final call, ending years of a pitched battle over environmental protection, job creation and energy security.
Unions that support the pipeline are trying to match opponents by also increasing the pressure for their side. The Laborers’ International Union of North America, which represents the construction workers who would build Keystone, last week sent letters to 27 House Democrats, criticizing their opposition to the project. Other letters went to union members in their members’ districts.
“These so-called ‘friends’ of ours are destroying good-paying work opportunities with family-supporting benefits, at a time when LIUNA members are trying to put food on their tables, keep roofs over their heads, and maintain middle-class lifestyles,” the letter states.
Almost 100,000 opponents have committed to risking arrest to show their views on Keystone, which would carry a carbon-heavy type of crude.
Scott Parkin, an activist at the Rainforest Action Network, a San Francisco group that describes its mission as “environmentalism with teeth,” said the pledge of resistance was modeled after civil disobedience actions against human rights abuses in Central America in the 1980s. Keystone has brought a sense of urgency in the fight against global warming, helping galvanize opponents, he said.
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“We need to come to an awakening and an awareness,” said Terry Gallagher, a minister based in Aurora, Illinois, outside of Chicago who has signed the pledge. “One of the ways we can do that is with non-violent, civil disobedience.”
People attending the program last weekend were instructed on how to pick a target for the protest — a federal building, for example — how to generate press coverage, and how to pick a lawyer who can say whether local laws will require time in jail, Parkin said.
Seven people from the D.C. area attended two training sessions Williams gave from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The seven can now go home to teach others the right way to conduct anti-Keystone actions, he said.
Organizers want a unified message, so trainers like Williams go over visuals. Placards should say, for example, “I am a (teacher, mother, minister, doctor, etc.) against the Keystone XL.”
Attendees also role played, with one side doing the protesting and the other pretending to be employees trying to get into a blocked government agency door.
Special attention is given to how to diffuse a tense situation. If employees become angry they can’t get to work, the groups are encouraged to have a spokesman ready who can step out and direct them to an alternate entrance.
“We don’t want to have anybody not being able to get to their jobs,” Williams said.
Other groups are stepping up their activity as well. The Cowboy Indian Alliance, which includes ranchers, farmers and members of tribal communities along the Keystone’s path, is planning to camp out on Washington’s National Mall later this month to protest the project.
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The recent civil action training sessions follow similar events in 2013 when organizers were angered by a draft environmental analysis that found Keystone wouldn’t have a significant impact on climate change because the oil sands would be developed even if Obama rejected the pipeline.
The final environmental analysis backed up that conclusion, though it did say Keystone would have a bigger impact if oil prices fell to make transporting the heavy crude by rail uneconomic.
Parkin said the groups believe there will be about a week between when the State Department releases its national interest determination and Obama announces his decision. That’s when the mass protests are planned.
About 95,000 people have signed a pledge to risk arrest in more than 30 states if the State Department recommends Keystone be built or if Obama approves the project, Parkin said.
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