By Carl Schreck
Environmental activists are stepping up their pressure on US President Barack Obama to oppose construction of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the US Gulf Coast.
“This is clearly the key test for the president,” Jamie Henn, co-founder of the grassroots environmental group 350.org, told RIA Novosti on Thursday. “This is the most important thing he could do on climate change at this moment.”
Thousands of activists are planning to rally in Washington on Sunday to lobby Obama for urgent action on climate change, first and foremost by halting the proposed construction of the 1,700-mile (2,736-kilometer), $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry heavy crude oil from Canada’s tar sands—described by 350.org president Bill McKibben as North America’s “biggest carbon bomb”—through America’s heartland.
The planned rally follows the arrest of dozens of environmental activists—including McKibben, Hollywood actress Daryl Hannah and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., nephew of former US President John F. Kennedy—as they protested the proposed pipeline outside the White House on Wednesday.
The intensifying debate over Keystone XL highlights Obama’s difficult political dance as he pushes his “all-of-the-above” energy strategy, developing domestic renewable energy projects —such as wind and solar— and tackling climate change while promising development of oil and gas projects at home.
Obama did not mention the Keystone XL pipeline during his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, though he said he would direct his cabinet “to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”
He added however, that in order to encourage “greater energy independence,” his administration “will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits.”
Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute (API), a Washington-based oil and natural gas industry lobby group, told reporters this week that the pipeline would “not only create good middle-class jobs for thousands” of workers in the United States, but would also “be an investment in America’s economy and in its energy future.”
Once completed, the pipeline is expected to eventually move some 800,000 barrels of oil a day.
The Sierra Club, a leading US environmental group that is helping organize Sunday’s rally, says the carbon intensive process of extracting oil from the tar sands would pump the greenhouse gas equivalent of 4 million passenger vehicles on the road or building four new coal-fired power plants each year.
The group, which has suspended its organization-wide ban on civil disobedience in order to protest Keystone XL, says the pipeline would also “pollute freshwater supplies in America’s agricultural heartland.”
The Obama administration last year delayed a decision on whether to green-light the Keystone XL project, saying it needed more time to study the impact the pipeline would have on environmentally sensitive areas of Nebraska.
The governor of the Midwestern state, however, signed off on a new route for the pipeline last month, and the US State Department—which has formal jurisdiction over the project because of its cross-border nature—is expected to announce its final decision later this year.
The southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline is already being built and the Obama administration has helped speed up construction by approving federal permits in the region.
Henn, the 350.org co-founder, said environmentalists’ battle against the project was “always a David vs. Goliath fight” against the powerful petroleum lobby, but that Keystone opponents take heart in Obama’s appointment of John Kerry as US Secretary of State.
He described Kerry as one of the strongest advocates for the environmental movement in Washington.
“For him to approve Keystone would go against his 20 years of public service leading on the environment,” Henn told RIA Novosti.
Kerry discussed the pipeline project with his Canadian counterpart, John Baird, last week and told reporters he is committed to a “transparent process” in determining Keystone XL’s fate.
“I can guarantee you that it will be fair and transparent, accountable, and we hope that we will be able to be in a position to make an announcement in the near-term,” Kerry said. “I don’t want to pin down precisely when, but I assure you, in the near-term.”
Obama has been widely embraced by US environmentalists, and he has infused the movement with optimism with his recent public statements recently on combating climate change.
During his inaugural address last month, he said that failing to respond to the challenges presented by climate change “would betray our children and future generations.”
“Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought and more powerful storms,” he said. “The path toward sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition.”
And along with industry lobby groups and Republican lawmakers, members of his own Democratic party are pressuring Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline as well.
Fifty-three US senators—including nine Democrats—sent a letter to Obama last month urging him “to choose jobs, economic development and American energy security” by allowing the project to go forward.
After Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman gave his approval, “there is no reason to deny or further delay this long-studied project,” the senators wrote.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, are hoping they can grab the president’s attention with Sunday’s demonstration in Washington.
Already 30,000 environmental activists have signed up to attend the rally against the project, and organizers expect at least 15,000 to show up, said Henn, whose group is coordinating the event with other grassroots movements.
“There is a real appetite here for bold action to stop this project,” he said.