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How Not to Stop a Pipeline


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.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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