Updated: Sept. 17, 2011; added Bill McKibben’s response and Ralph Nader’s response
It was the most extraordinary citizen organizing feat in recent White House history. Over 1200 Americans from 50 states came to Washington and were arrested in front of the White House to demonstrate their opposition to a forthcoming Obama approval of the Keystone XL dirty oil pipeline from Alberta, Canada down to the Gulf Coast.
Anyone who has tried to mobilize people in open non-violent civil disobedience knows how hard it is to have that many people pay their way to Washington to join a select group of civic champions. The first round of arrestees – about 100 of them – were brought to a jail and kept on cement floors for 52 hours – presumably, said one guard, on orders from above to discourage those who were slated to follow this first wave in the two weeks ending September 3, 2011.
The Keystone XL pipeline project – owned by a consortium of oil companies – is a many faceted abomination. It will, if constructed, take its raw, tar sands carbon down through the agricultural heartland of the United States – through the Missouri and Niobrara Rivers, the great Ogallala aquifer, fragile natural habitats and Native American lands. Major breaks and accidents on pipelines – four of them with loss of human life- have occurred just in the past year from California to Pennsylvania, including a recent, major Exxon/Mobile pipeline rupture which resulted in many gallons of oil spilling into the Yellowstone River.
The Office of Pipeline Safety in the Department of Transportation has been a pitiful rubberstamp patsy for the pipeline industry for 40 years. There are larger objections – a huge contribution to greenhouse gases and further expansion of the destruction of northern Albertan terrain, forests and water – expected to cover an area the size of Florida.
Furthermore, as the Energy Department report on Keystone XL pointed out, decreasing demand for petroleum through advances in fuel efficiency is the major way to reduce reliance on imported oil with or without the pipeline. There is no assurance whatsoever that the refined tar sands oil in Gulf Coast refineries will even get to the motorists here. They can be exported more profitably to Europe and South America.
In ads on Washington, D.C.’s WTOP news station, the industry is claiming that the project will create more than 100,000 jobs. They cannot substantiate this figure. It is vastly exaggerated. TransCanada’s permit application for Keystone XL to the U.S. State Department estimated a “peak workforce of approximately 3,500 to 4,200 construction personnel” to build the pipeline.
The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU) oppose the pipeline. In their August 2011 statement they said: “We need jobs, but not ones based on increasing our reliance on Tar Sands oil […] Many jobs could 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.”
The demonstrators before the White House, led by prominent environmentalist Bill McKibben and other stalwarts, focused on President Obama because he and he alone will make the decision either for or against building what they call “North America’s biggest carbon bomb.” He does not have to ask Congress.
Already the State Department, in their latest report, is moving to recommend approval. The demonstrators and their supporters, including leaders of the Native American Dene tribe in Canada and the Lakota nation in the U.S., filled much of the area in front of the White House and Lafayette Square. On September 2, I went down to express my support for their cause. Assistants to Mr. McKibben asked me to speak at the final rally at the square on Saturday. I agreed. At 6:25 p.m. we received an e-mail from Daniel Kessler withdrawing their invitation because of “how packed our schedule already is. We’d love to have Ralph there in any other capacity, including participating in the protest.”
The next day, many of the speakers went way over their allotted five to six minute time slots. Observers told me that there were to be no criticisms of Barack Obama. McKibben wore an Obama pin on the stage. Obama t-shirts were seen out in the crowd. McKibben did not want their efforts to be “marginalized” by criticizing the President, which they expected I would do. He said that “he would not do Obama the favor” of criticizing him.
To each one’s own strategy. I do not believe McKibben’s strategy is up to the brilliance of his tactics involving the mass arrests. (Which by the way received deplorably little mass media coverage).
Obama believes that those demonstrators and their followers around the country are his voters (they were in 2008) and that they have nowhere to go in 2012. So long as environmentalists do not find a way to disabuse him of this impression long before Election Day, they should get ready for an Obama approval of the Keystone XL monstrosity.
Bill McKibben: Environmentalists ARE Criticizing Obama
Bill McKibben, well-known environmental activist, wrote a response to Nader’s article earlier this week: “Obama’s Pipeline Quagmire.”
Mr. Nader didn’t get to talk at the rally because everyone else there had gotten arrested; they’d put their bodies on the line. As for not criticizing the president, we just had 1253 people arrested at the White House. Does that sound like criticism? We’re busy bird-dogging the president around the country, with actions in four states in the last five days. We’ve staged ‘interventions’ at several of his campaign headquarters, with many more to come. I think the Nation got it right: “After Obama’s Broken Promises, Will Green Voters Sit Out in 2012?”
Ralph Nader: Response to Bill McKibben
How easy it is to miscommunicate. I did not ask to speak at the rally opposing the Keystone XL devastator. On Friday, I went to the area in front of the White House to express my support for this extraordinary demonstration. Assistants to Bill McKibben asked me to return on Saturday and address the rally. If there was an arrest criterion for the speakers, it was not communicated to me when a few hours later they disinvited me. All this is to clarify the record – no big deal. The other point brother McKibben makes is to equate criticism with a plea or a demand by over 1200 non-violent, civil disobedient arrestees before the White House that President Obama reject the pipeline project when it comes to his desk. They declined to, in their formal speeches and declarations, criticize Mr. Obama even though on the second to the last day of the two-week demonstration, Mr. Obama rejected the EPA’s key pollution control standard regarding ozone. This was preceded during the two weeks of McKibben’s group protest by the State Department’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that claimed the pipeline would have minimal environmental impacts.
There was no criticism of Obama by these White House protest leaders, who understandably, chose to position themselves in a way that conveyed to Obama and the media that they supported Obama and hoped he would adopt their position against the pipeline. (Some of the protestors, including McKibben even wore Obama pins or Obama t-shirts.)
We know how environmental groups “position” themselves whether dealing with deregulation of electricity years ago or with their differing stands on nuclear power. All we ask is not to muddle the language and equate demands for future decisions to be equated with criticisms.
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