Members of the Sierra Club, and Committed Citizens, including actress Daryl Hannah, demonstrated Wednesday in front of the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY)

When President Obama spoke about climate change in the State of the Union address Tuesday night, he failed to mention the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which aims to transport heavy crude oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast and which needs his approval for a construction permit.

But that controversial project — which ranks as one of the top climate decisions the president will have to make this year — took center stage Wednesday as 48 activists engaged in civil disobedience at the gates of the White House.

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, 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.”

The protest was well orchestrated and had an exclusive air about it, bringing together the elite of the environmental movement.

Hansen, who heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said the fact that Obama can talk about promoting renewable energy and oil and gas production “shows he doesn’t get it.”

“We have reached a fork in the road,” Hansen said, “and the politicians have to understand we either go down this road of exploiting every fossil fuel we have — tar sands, tar shale, off-shore drilling in the Arctic — but the science tells us we can’t do that without creating a situation where our children and grandchildren will have no control over, which is the climate system.”

Several activists said they have pressed the administration for information on how it would approach Keystone but have not gotten answers. Michael Kieschnick, president of CREDO Mobile and an Obama donor, said officials have told him that “things are going to be different and climate change is going to be a part of his legacy, but no specifics.”

The Sierra Club’s Brune, who has been arrested once for protesting the logging of old-growth forests in Northern California and once for protesting factory trawling in the Pacific, had refrained from protesting in his current post because his group has traditionally barred civil disobedience. But the organization’s board of directors voted to approve it for the first time in its 120-year history on the grounds that the issue was so important.

“It’s awful hard to reconcile wanting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with [approving] the dirtiest oil project in the country,” Brune said. “The president gets this, he understands this challenge, and we’re here to ensure his ambitions rise to the level of the challenge.”

Julian Bond, who was first arrested at a sit-in at the Atlanta City Hall cafeteria in March 1960 and who was most recently arrested in the 1980s outside the South African Embassy in Washington, said civil disobedience was again needed.

“When you find that ordinary methods of persuasion are not working, you turn to other methods, and this is peaceful, nonthreatening and has been successful in the past, and there is no reason to believe it won’t be successful here.”

Bond, echoing Keystone XL foes who say that it would mostly provide a route for oil sands to reach world markets, said, “This is not a pipeline to America. It’s a pipeline through America, and it threatens to be a disaster for us if it leaks poisons on the way.”

The protesters were released Wednesday afternoon after each paid a $100 fine.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, said that although he prefers to challenge projects in court, he chose to be arrested because legal avenues had been closed off by friends of the oil industry.

“They have so rigged the system that we cannot go to court,” he said. He said that the oil industry had turned Congress into “indentured servants” and that “even Obama in his State of the Union has to doff his cap to big oil and genuflect to them.”