Twenty-two people were arrested this morning after staging a sit-in at the U.S. State Department’s Chicago office to protest the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline. The action in President Obama’s hometown is the first of a series of planned acts of civil disobedience this summer calling on the administration to reject the controversial pipeline. All 22 demonstrators have since been released.
Proposed by the Canadian energy corporation TransCanada, the multi-billion-dollar pipeline would transport Alberta’s tar sands oil to refineries on the Gulf Coast, passing through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Opponents say the pipeline’s environmental impact would be disastrous. Because the KXL would cross the U.S.-Canada border, Obama’s State Department has the last word on whether the megaproject is approved.
The newly launched KXL Pledge of Resistance campaign—led by progressive organizations CREDO, Rainforest Action Network and The Other 98%, with endorsements from the Tar Sands Blockade, 350.org, Hip Hop Caucus, Oil Change International and Bold Nebraska—calls upon signers to engage in peaceful civil disobedience “should it be necessary to stop the Keystone XL.” While many anti-KXL campaigns have focused their activities in Washington, D.C. or in states the pipeline would pass through, the Pledge of Resistance is national in scope, aiming to engage people all over the country.
Among those arrested today were Obama supporters, including former campaign workers. Elijah Zarlin of CREDO was a Senior National Email Writer on the Obama campaign in Chicago in 2008. “I never thought I’d have to come back to Chicago and risk arrest in order to send a message to the president to ask him to do what he committed to do,” he says.
Several were parents and grandparents who said they risked arrest out of concern for the future of their children and grandchildren. Reverend Terrence Gallagher, a minister for the United Church of Christ and one of those arrested today, says he opposes the KXL because he cares “about the future of kids around the world,” including his own grandchildren. “The future well-being of our kids deserves no less of a response” than civil disobedience, he says.
As early as September, the State Department will issue a report determining whether construction of the KXL is in the national interest, which will likely foreshadow the administration’s decision. Becky Bond, political director of CREDO, promises that if the report recommends approval, it will trigger “the biggest burst of civil disobedience in modern American history.” She says that over 62,000 people have signed the campaign’s “Pledge of Resistance” promising to risk arrest in civil disobedience actions across the country if the State Department recommends approval.
“This summer there are trainings going on in 25 cities across the country, getting hundreds, if not thousands, of protests like this [the one in Chicago] ready,” says Amanda Starbuck of Rainforest Action Network.
According to State Department figures, the construction of the pipeline would create 42,100 jobs. But this would plummet to just 35 permanent jobs for pipeline maintenance while emitting the equivalent of 51 coal plants’ worth of carbon a year, according a report released this April by environmental group Oil Change International. Because it will guarantee continued extraction of Canada’s vast tar sands deposits — an extremely carbon-intensive process — retired NASA climate scientist James Hansen has described KXL as “game over for the climate.” In addition to the KXL’s devastating climate impact, opponents also fear the potential for disasters similar to ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline rupture that spilled about 5,000 barrels of tar sands crude in Mayflower, Ark. this spring.
Opposition to the KXL has already inspired a wave of nonviolent direct action, including blockades and tree sits in Texas and Oklahoma, where the southern portion of the pipeline is now under construction. In 2011, environmental activist Bill McKibben and over 1,000 others were arrested in front of the White House protesting the megaproject. February’s “Forward on Climate” rally in Washington, D.C. was the largest anti-pipeline action to date, attended by some 40,000 people. A play on Obama’s 2012 campaign slogan, “Forward,” the rally was intended to pressure the president — although, ironically, during the rally Obama was in Florida golfing with oil industry bigwigs.
Activists see a disconnect between the president’s words and deeds. At his inauguration in January — an event partially funded by ExxonMobil—the president declared, “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” Three weeks later at his State of the Union address, Obama promised that if Congress would not take action on climate change, he would.
Despite such promises, the administration appears ready to approve construction of the KXL. In March, the State Department released an environmental impact statement opponents say plays down the risks posed by the pipeline. The consultants who helped prepare the report had previously worked for TransCanada and other oil giants, a fact the State Department hid from the public.
“President Obama has said some really good words,” says Gallagher. “What he needs to understand is we’re past the time just for words, we’re at the point that we have to take action.”
Zarlin says, “The president hasn’t stepped up and led on climate change in the way he said he would and in the way that’s necessary.”
TransCanada appears to be anxious about the mounting tide of opposition, going so far as to advise law enforcement agencies to regard anti-pipeline activists as “terrorists.” Starbuck says this is “incredibly deceptive” of the oil company, noting that protests against the KXL have been open and transparent.
“I’ve been called many things in my life, but ‘terrorist’ hasn’t been one of them,” says Reverend Gallagher. “I’m here in the spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. There is no ounce of terrorism in this. There’s a lot of love, a loving care that says, ‘I’m willing to sacrifice so that others might live.’”
Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.