Keystone XL pipeline protest marks first civil disobedience by Sierra Club

A Keystone XL pipeline protest ended in the arrest of several high-profile figures and marked the first time the Sierra Club has engaged in an act of civil disobedience. Can passive resistance stop the Keystone XL pipeline?

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Longtime civil rights activist Julian Bond and activists opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline project tie themselves to the White House fence during an environmental protest in Washington Wednesday. Is civil disobedience an effective way for energy and environment groups to advance their cause?

Keystone XL pipeline protestors tied themselves to a White House fence Thursday, calling on President Obama to block the construction of a pipeline extension that would carry oil product from Canada to refineries in Texas.

Police arrested high-profile activists and celebrities, including actress Daryl Hannah, longtime civil rights leader Julian Bond, and Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune.

The demonstration marked the Sierra Club's first act of civil disobedience in the environmental advocacy organization's 120-year history.

It is also the first salvo in an escalating public battle between pipeline supporters and opponents. On Sunday, Keystone XL opponents are scheduled to hold a climate change protest on the National Mall in Washington. Organizers say they expect tens of thousands of people to attend. And they're billing it as the largest climate rally in US history. Can it work?

“For civil disobedience to be justified, something must be so wrong that it compels the strongest defensible protest,” the Sierra Club's Mr. Brune said in a statement late last month. “We are watching a global crisis unfold before our eyes, and to stand aside and let it happen – even though we know how to stop it – would be unconscionable."

History is full of nonviolent protests against everything from segregation to dictatorship, but they've met with mixed success.

"Dramatic protest events are only effective to the extent that they can mobilize people to do other things besides civil disobedience," said David Meyer, professor of sociology and political science at University of California, Irvine, and author of "The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America." "When you scan the headlines, they’re not talking about Keystone. They’re talking about guns, immigration, and sequester, sequester, sequester. This is a way to get back on the agenda."  

Bill McKibben, a founder of the environmental group, was also arrested during Thursday's protest.

“We really shouldn't have to be put in handcuffs to stop KXL – our nation's leading climate scientists have told us it's dangerous folly, and all the recent Nobel Peace laureates have urged us to set a different kind of example for the world, so the choice should be obvious,” Mr. McKibben said in a statement. “But given the amount of money on the other side, we've had to spend our bodies, and we'll probably have to spend them again.”

Supporters of the pipeline aren't standing still. In anticipation of Sunday's rally, the oil and gas industries have mobilized advocacy efforts of their own. Last week the American Petroleum Institute commissioned a poll of 1,001 registered voters across the country, concluding that 69 percent of American voters favor building the Keystone XL pipeline.

“The Keystone XL wraps new American jobs and energy security into a single common sense package," API president and CEO Jack Gerard said in a statement. "That’s why voters overwhelmingly back it, and that’s why the nation needs it and why the administration should approve it." 

The battle over the Keystone XL pipeline involves high stakes.

Energy impact: Canada's tar-sands industry would gain access to US refineries on the Gulf Coast for the first time, bringing some 4 million barrels' worth of oil a day by 2020 to be sold in the US or exported abroad.

Environment impact: Production from tar sands (also called oil sands) pollute more than conventional sources of oil. Production greenhouse gas emissions are, on average, 72 percent to 111 percent higher for Canadian oil sands crude than for the weighted average of transportation fuels sold or distributed in the United States, according to a 2012 Congressional Research Service estimate. Since the pipeline would cross significant underground water resources, Keystone opponents also raise concerns over the risk of pipeline leaks.

Backers of the proposal downplay those concerns, calling Keystone the "the most thoroughly vetted major infrastructure project in the nation's history." A study by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality concluded that the construction and operation of the pipeline would result in "minimal environmental impacts." The US State Department is expected to issue a final environmental impact statement on the project sometime in 2013. 

Economic impact: New oil sands development could support over 400,000 additional jobs in the US by 2035, according to a 2011 Canadian Energy Research Institute study.

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