Standing outside the Ronald Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Avenue last week, author and environmentalist Bill McKibben looked out over the cheering crowd. "We do not know if we are going to win this fight, but there was not even a fight to win two months ago," he said. The fight he was talking about is the battle to prevent TransCanada from building Keystone XL, a 1,700-mile pipeline that would carry crude oil refined from tar sands in Canada to Texas.
As the December deadline for a decision from the White House and the State Department approaches, protests against the pipeline have gained traction, turning it into a dicey political issue for the president who once promised to "heal the planet": Where Barack Obama comes down on the Keystone pipeline will effectively decide whether or not environmentalists will be on his team next November.
Since August 20, when 70 people first protested on the sidewalk outside the White House, the movement has swelled to include not just environmentalists but landowners, students, governors, and citizens from around the country. For two weeks, McKibben and his growing number of supporters peacefully sat on Pennsylvania Avenue, holding signs and voicing their objection to the pipeline. When police asked them to move, many refused. By September 3, more than 500 people had been arrested.
While opponents of Keystone XL had always been vocal about its dangers, the August protest -- which caught the attention of lawmakers, Nobel laureates, and local groups across the nation that held "solidarity protests" -- effectively gave the group the microphone it needed. Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the National Farmers Union, local state groups, and other organizations signed on. Protests began popping up throughout the country, trailing the president as he campaigned in St. Louis, Columbus, Cincinnati, Raleigh, and Denver.
TransCanada first submitted its application for a permit to build Keystone XL, an expansion of the existing Keystone pipeline, in 2008. The pipeline has leaked 14 times in the year since it became operational. (Its most significant spill resulted in 21,000 gallons of oil gushing over North Dakota in May.) The proposed expansion threatens more than 70 rivers and lakes, including the Ogallala aquifer, which is a significant source of the Midwest's water supply.
In a statement that has become a rallying cry for protesters, James Hansen, NASA scientist and climate expert, called the pipeline "game over for the environment."
Environmental concerns, however, are not the only thing motivating protesters.
On September 26, the State Department (which is overseeing the decision on the permit process because the pipeline would cross an international border) began holding hearings in the states the pipeline would run through, to allow citizens to state their concerns. These hearings smacked of impropriety from the beginning. Pipeline workers, clad in orange T-shirts, were bused in and paid by TransCanada to attend the meetings in a hollow show of support. Consulting company Cardno Entrix, which maintains the State Department's Keystone website and counts TransCanada as one of its biggest clients, was contracted to run the hearings.
Additionally, the report that the State and Energy departments are reviewing to address the environmental impact of the proposal was prepared in part by Cardno Entrix. This report is the main source of environmental information for the State Department. The American Petroleum Institute, which has been actively lobbying for the pipeline, was also involved in drafting the report.
In another move that signaled corruption, TransCanada hired Lobbyist Paul Elliot, who worked on Hilary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, to lobby Clinton and the State Department on Keystone XL. In addition to the conflict of interest, Elliot had begun his work before applying for a license to lobby for a multinational corporation. E-mails reveal close ties between Elliot and Clinton Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills as well as Marja Verloop, who works at the U.S. Embassy in Canada. In some of the most damning e-mails, Elliot celebrates his successful meetings with Verloop and indicates State Department knowledge of TransCanada's intention to raise pressure in the pipeline -- a position that the company was publicly against. These e-mails led activists to believe that the decision to approve the Keystone expansion had already been made.
Maura Cowley, co-director of the Energy Action Coalition (a group that works with more than 200,000 youth across the country on environmental-awareness issues), believes that "TransCanada ... is in bed with the State Department, potentially doing illegal things, and we want the Department of Justice to intervene."
With many skeptical that the State Department will fairly handle the permit, the focus has now shifted to Obama, who will ultimately decide whether to sign the permit. Cowley says that there are plans to storm Obama's campaign office for the next month to warn the president that young voters will "not support him if he does not make the right decision on this."
More than 2,000 people have already pledged to join together on November 6 to encircle the White House, reminding Obama of his pledge that, if elected, "the planet would begin to heal."