Bill McKibben is usually a law-abiding man. But last week, McKibben found himself in Washington, D.C.’s central cell block for two days next to convicted murderers and rapists. Guards made him remove his wedding ring for his own safety and he slept, with no mattress, on a wire bed frame. Meals were served twice a day: a bologna sandwich at 3 p.m. and 3 a.m.
It was, of course, McKibben’s choice to end up behind bars. As one of the nation’s top environmentalists, he took part in an ongoing demonstration outside the White House that landed him in handcuffs and in the back of a paddy wagon. Hundreds of activists have joined him in being arrested for civil obedience, including actress Daryl Hannah on Tuesday, in a series of rolling protests that has stretched on for more than a week.
Their issue is a new project know as the Keystone oil pipeline that would transport oil from Canada’s tar sands fields to refineries in the Gulf Coast. The State Department has given the environmental go-ahead for the project, leaving it to the president to make the final decision. But environmentalists like McKibben see it as an expansion of America’s dependence on dirty fuels and are trying to pressure President Obama to nullify the permit and halt the Keystone project.
For nearly three years, environmentalists have sat patiently, they say. They’ve watched their cause be attacked by conservatives skeptical of environmental threats, and they’ve sat quietly while the White House put things like climate change and species protection on the back burner.
But many of those advocates are using the pipeline debate to draw a line in the (tar) sand for Obama. “If he doesn’t cancel the project, he will have lost our support,” McKibben told The Daily Beast.
There’s an element of heft behind that threat. By late Tuesday, just over 600 people had volunteered to civilly disobey Secret Service officers and be taken away from the White House in handcuffs. Several hundred more watched, applauding with each arrest as if to encourage their fellow protesters. Several high-profile names volunteered as well, including NASA scientist Jim Hansen. McKibben was eager to note that the collection of people prepared for arrest was not all young people, either. “We thought it was improper to ask these volunteers how old they are, so we asked them who was president when they were born. Most of them said FDR.”
On the national level, patience is clearly waning for a president who promised to confront climate change and usher science back into the administration. Faced with occasional questions about climate concerns or other environmental concerns, the White House usually notes that Obama has had his hands full performing CPR on the economy and that congressional Republicans have opposed every effort by the administration to regulate water and air quality.
Obama has stuck his neck out for the environment here and there: $90 billion in the 2009 Recovery Act was devoted to environment and energy efficiency. The Cash for Clunkers program was designed to help clear pollution. And renewable-energy tax credits have helped boost the solar and wind industries.
But the Keystone decision is Obama’s chance, the advocates say, to show his true colors by standing up to fossil-fuel companies. If completed, the 1,700-mile structure would carry oil from northern Canada down to the U.S. Midwest, then be connected to pipelines that stretch to Gulf refineries.
The project must still pass the licensing process before it can officially begin. Myriad lawsuits have flooded the Canadian courts over the project, specifically to halt the flow of oil down across borders. But the U.S. government has been amenable so far. The State Department greenlighted the pipeline in an extensive environmental impact report last week. The document paved the way for construction on the pipeline to begin, unless Obama calls off the whole project.
The likelihood of his doing that is exceedingly small. And in many ways, the demand to nullify the project isn’t entirely realistic. Keystone is somewhat out of Obama’s hands; TransCanada, a Canadian oil company, is coordinating the project. If the U.S. were to pull out, the oil would likely be sold to the next highest bidder, perhaps China. A spokesman for TransCanada declined to comment for this story, but a company release noted considerable progress had already been made on siting and local permitting for the pipeline.
But in the U.S., the project would also be an economic boon when the president needs some motion on the nation’s fiscal Richter scale. It would create about 20,000 jobs to the middle of the county, according to some estimates, especially to Northern states hit hard by the downturn. It also would bring new oil to the market, driving down energy costs and the price of gas. And it would naturally alleviate demand from unfriendly sources of oil in volatile parts of the world.
Back in April, Obama avoided speaking directly about the pipeline, but he did note that he liked the idea. “I will make this general point … importing oil from countries that are stable and friendly is a good thing.” Much of the review process has occurred at State because it’s an international project, and Obama has vowed repeatedly to stay out of the decision-making process.
The White House declined to comment on the record about the protests outside except to acknowledge they were occurring. But the protesters said they felt that their message was being received. “We’ve gotten positive signs from the administration. They know we’re out here,” Michael Kieschnick, CEO of CREDO Mobile, told The Daily Beast just minutes before he was arrested. Several of the activists noticed senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett walking by the protest on Monday, which galvanized those being led into police vans.
Meanwhile, the rest of the environmental community has gotten behind the Washington protests, staking their future, as well as Obama’s, on whether he cancels the pipeline by the end of the year. In 2008, green groups like to note, they helped Obama raise a substantial amount of his $500 million campaign windfall. And virtually all of the major groups endorsed him over Hillary Clinton.
But that was then, and now they’re laying down the gauntlet. “It will be a lot more difficult to mobilize our members [in 2012], to inspire them to get up early, to knock on doors in the rain, to donate money when they feel the president didn’t show the courage he said he would,” said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune.
Political translation: this time we’re serious.