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Challenging the Tar Sands

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Hundreds of environmental activists outside the White House protest the controversial Keystone XL pipeline which would be built between Canada and Texas. As of Wednesday, more than 220 people have already been arrested, detained, and released.

CREDIT: flickr / Shadia Fayne Wood

When President Obama returns from his Martha’s Vineyard vacation, hundreds of environmental activists hope to be positioned outside the White House with one request: deny a permit request to build a massive oil pipeline between Canada and Texas.

The large multi-day demonstration comes at the same time those in Washington, D.C are preparing to commemorate the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial—and young people are continuing King’s tradition in a new, green way.

The controversial Keystone XL pipeline would transport 700,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta, Canada—an area producing about 1.8 million barrels per day, according to a July report from Canada’s environmental ministry—to refineries in the Texas area, a 1,700 mile trip.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben and 350.org are leading the rolling sit-in outside the White House for the next two weeks, through Sept. 3. More than 2,000 have signed up to participate and McKibben is calling the effort the “largest collective act of civil disobedience in the history of the climate movement.” As of Wednesday, more than 220 people had been arrested, detained, and released, according to Climate Progress. On the second day of the sit-in, I was in front of the White House where many people were arrested, including some of my close friends. Their arrests were dignified, and I remember feeling a strong sense of pride.

(Photos: Tar Sands Action Sit-In)

The bitumen-rich tar sands in Alberta would have catastrophic environmental impacts across the nation, from extraction in Canada to movement through the pipeline across the nation to processing at Texas refineries. The process begins with the sand being mined in an open-pit and going through an intensive separation and upgrading process. The Keystone XL would then carry the oil across the land of many Native American tribes and across the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides fresh drinking water to millions of Americans. Overall, the refinement of the tar sands produces up to twice as much green house gases as regular crude.

“It’s all encompassing in terms of environmental and social injustices,” says Rae Braeux, one of the sit-in’s organizers. “This is a pipeline that ties into oil, and then oil is tying into the climate, so it’s a very tangible goal. If we want to stop climate change … we have to start with things we can reach.”

Braeux is part of a team coordinating activists participating in the sit-in. During the second day, 45 people were arrested for failure to obey a lawful order by refusing to move within the high-traffic tourist area outside the White House. On the first day, the U.S. Park Police arrested more than 70 people, including McKibben. During his detainment, he sent a message to activists-in-training.

“All we need in here is more company,” McKibben told organizers over the phone.

Those arrested Saturday were told they would be held through the weekend—a different approach than the one U.S. Park Police originally told organizers they’d use and an apparent intimidation tactic to dissuade a second wave of arrests. On Sunday, the detainees were released within hours and the arrest process was more streamlined.Many people were arrested for the first time outside the White House Sunday.

Activists and organizers said they see the action as a springboard for a new round of recruitment in the fight against climate change, particularly if the participation numbers don’t dwindle over the next two weeks of sustained action.

The lucrative Keystone XL pipeline project has money pouring in from the oil-loving Koch brothers and its construction will not lower gas prices as has been claimed, according to a report from the National Resources Defense Council. While moneyed interests continue to argue for the pipeline with a “jobs creation” argument, two major unions—The Transport Workers Union and the Amalgamated Transit Union—said recently that they are against the pipeline project.

The excess carbon that would be added to the atmosphere from the pipeline project alone has been hailed as a “Game Over” for the planet by climate scientist James Hansen and has led to public outcry.

The negative consequences for the environment are so numerous that it’s difficult to mention them all in one article. The pipeline would disrupt the migratory patterns of birds, destroy hundreds of acres of wetlands, and place low-income communities at the risk of very probable oil spills, as recent pipeline leaks in Montana and Michigan have demonstrated. And huge chunks of boreal forest, one of the major forests responsible for regulating the climate, have already been cleared for tar sands. A New York Times editorial against the Keystone XL pipeline that ran on Sunday said the project will result in cutting down about 740,000 acres of boreal forest.

Indigenous people would also be affected by the pipeline, which would require some of their land to be destroyed. Heather Milton Lightening, an activist with the Indigenous Environmental Network, is helping bring delegations of indigenous people from the most impacted sectors of the pipeline stretch to the ongoing Tar Sands Action in D.C.

“When you go up north, people are dealing with things like high cancer rates, they’re dealing with polluted water, they’re dealing with government denial, they’re dealing with the violation of their treaty rights, the loss of life, the loss of livelihoods, the loss of jobs, culture, language,” Lightening said of the impacts the construction could have.

Indigenous people in Canada will be most affected by the tar sands extraction and pipeline because they’re closest to the project pathand many tribal chiefs are passing moratoriums on any new oil and gas developments in Alberta as a response. Much of the action has been led by an indigenous youth movement that is steadily picking up steam.

The Energy Action Coalition of 50 youth-led organizations has been working with the Indigenous Environmental Network on the tar sands issue.

Energy Action Coalition Campaign Director Whit Jones, who is coordinating the Youth Day Sit-In scheduled for Saturday, said he has high hopes for the climate youth movement.

“I think the president and the State Department will read into this that even if they do provide the permit for the pipeline, people are going to be fighting this tooth-and-nail,” Jones said. “They can end it all for us in December, and become heroes on it or they could allow the permit to go through.”

Candice Bernd is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @CandiceBernd.

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