Shortly after noon, D.C. police began arresting the protesters, who included actress Daryl Hannah as well as prominent climate scientist James E. Hansen, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune and civil rights veteran Julian Bond. Some of the activists tied themselves to the gates with plastic handcuffs; others sat and refused to budge despite officers’ repeated requests.
Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, which has helped galvanize significant grass-roots opposition to the proposal, said Obama cannot ignore that the carbon-intensive process of extracting crude from Alberta’s oil sands will destabilize the planet.
“Whether it’s convenient or not for our politicians, this is the test,” McKibben said in an interview before being arrested, adding that Wednesday’s protest and a climate rally slated to take place Sunday in Washington were designed “just to keep this in front of people’s minds. . . . This is the first environmental issue that’s brought Americans into the streets in many, many years.”
The State Department, which has jurisdiction over the permitting decision, will release a draft environmental impact assessment of the project within weeks. The department issued a final environmental review of Keystone XL in fall 2011, but Obama rejected TransCanada’s permit application a year ago on the grounds that a congressionally mandated deadline did not afford the administration sufficient time to weigh the costs and benefits of the project.
Responding to objections that the original pipeline route would jeopardize Nebraska’s environmentally sensitive Sand Hills region, TransCanada has rerouted the proposed extension through Nebraska. The state’s governor has approved the new route, and that is part of what is under review at the State Department.
In the interim, the Obama administration has helped speed construction of the project’s southern leg, which runs from Cushing, Okla., to Port Arthur, Tex., by approving the necessary federal permits there.
But these modifications have failed to satisfy Nebraskans such as Randy Thompson, who took part in the White House protest. Thompson, whose family’s property would have been affected by the original pipeline route, said he remains concerned not only about the project’s impact on climate but also about the spills it could cause.
“The reroute does not take care of all of the environmental problems,” Thompson said, adding that the new route affects many of the same topographical features as the Sand Hills. “It’s just not designated that way on the map.”