Video produced by HuffPost's Hunter Stuart
WASHINGTON -- The fight over the construction of TransCanada's Keystone XL reached a pivotal moment on Sunday when an estimated 10,000 demonstrators gathered outside of the White House to call on President Obama to reject the proposed oil sands pipeline. In a statement on Tuesday, Obama vowed to take final ownership of the decision, which has become arguably the most important, high-profile environmental issue facing him before the 2012 election.
"President Obama can reignite the passion of Americans who care about clean air and clean water if he stands up for the health and livelihood of America's heartland, takes a stand against this climate catastrophe, and rejects this pipeline," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement on Sunday. "Denying the Keystone XL permit will send a clear signal that the U.S. government recognizes our true 'national interest' before oil company profits."
If approved by the White House, the pipeline could pump millions of barrels of crude oil from tar sands in Canada to oil refineries along the Gulf Coast. Since the pipeline crosses an international border, the decision to issue the permit rests with the State Department, which is expected to complete its review of the pipeline by the end of the year. By asserting a role in the final decision, Obama has made the project a defining point in his administration's stance on environmental issues -- a fact protesters have been keen to emphasize through demonstrations that began in August.
Actor Mark Ruffalo, activist Bill McKibben and Sierra Club executive director Mike Brune were among the thousands to join hands around the White House in a culmination of the protests. Activists encircled the White House as they called on the president to reject TransCanada's 1,700-mile oil pipeline that they fear will contribute irrevocably to global warming. Some carried a long, black tubular float that read “Stop The XL Pipeline.” Others wore orange safety vests to remind spectators of the threat of potential spills.
If it leaks, the pipeline could contaminate the 174,000 square-mile Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies drinking water to roughly two million people in the American heartland. That's an especially big concern for residents in the state of Nebraska, where the pipeline stretches some 257 miles through the state's midsection. And there is little comfort in the long history of leaks in Sargent County, N.D., and Bendena, Kan., at an existing TransCanada oil pipeline known as Keystone 1.
John Bolenbaugh, a Keystone employee-turned-pipeline activist came all the way from Michigan to speak out against the pipeline. Having served as a spill cleanup worker for an Enbridge Energy Partners' spill on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, Bolenbaugh told The Huffington Post that the risks entailed in building another pipeline are just not worth it.
“I’m a union worker, I work for Pipefitters 355 in Battle Creek, Mich., and I will not accept a job for a tar sands pipeline. I will not do it because I’ve seen the devastation and the sick people from what a tar sands spill does when there is a leak and there’s gonna be a leak. It’s gonna happen sooner or later.”
The Huffington Post’s Tom Zeller has reported that pipeline company TransCanada has seriously misrepresented the number of jobs the Keystone XL project would create, with the dubious job count “including expenditures on the Canadian side of the border” and containing “tens of thousands of indirect jobs in retail, printing and publishing and other ancillary industries that he claimed would be spurred by the pipeline.”
Now even some members of the labor movement are coming out against the project.
James C. Little, president of the Transport Workers Union, and Larry J. Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, leaders of transport workers unions representing over 300,000 U.S. workers, issued a joint statement last month opposing the approval of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. They wrote:
We call on the State Department NOT to approve the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline or to take any actions that lead to the further extraction of Tar Sands oil from Alberta, Canada.
We share the Environmental Protection Agency’s concerns conveyed to the State Department on two occasions (most recently on June 11, 2011). These concerns cover the potential impacts to groundwater resources from pipeline spills, the high levels of GHG emissions associated with the proposed project, and the inevitable damage to the health of communities affected by the increase in refinery emissions. Approval of this project at this time would therefore be reckless given the EPA’s own assessment of the environmental risks.
We need jobs, but not ones based on increasing our reliance on Tar Sands oil. There is no shortage of water and sewage pipelines that need to be fixed or replaced, bridges and tunnels that are in need of emergency repair, transportation infrastructure that needs to be renewed and developed. Many jobs could also be created in energy conservation, upgrading the grid, maintaining and expanding public transportation -- jobs that can help us reduce air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and improve energy efficiency.
Since August, 1,253 people have been arrested at White House sit-ins protesting the pipeline.