Hundreds of Students Arrested as Activists Press Obama to Nix Keystone

A protestor is arrested by police as students demonstrate against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in front of the White House in Washington on March 2, 2014. tudents from around the country gathered to oppose the tar sands oil pipeline from Canada, which they say is dangerous for the environment. US Secretary of State John Kerry is set to announce in the coming months whether the proposed $5.4 billion oil pipeline serves the national interest and will be constructed following years of confrontation between environmentalists and the oil industry.
National Journal
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
March 2, 2014, 12:44 p.m.

Po­lice ar­res­ted hun­dreds of stu­dent anti-Key­stone pipeline act­iv­ists near the White House on Sunday af­ter­noon as op­pon­ents of the pro­ject seek polit­ic­al mo­mentum after re­cent set­backs.

“Pres­id­ent Obama, we voted you in for change. Cli­mate change isn’t what we were look­ing for,” Han­nah Bris­tol, a Middle­bury Col­lege seni­or, told the crowd at a La­fay­ette Square rally late Sunday morn­ing be­fore the civil dis­obedi­ence began.

Sev­er­al hun­dred col­lege stu­dents soon used plastic hand­cuffs to link them­selves to the White House gate across the street from La­fay­ette Square, while dozens of oth­ers lay down in front of them on black plastic in a “hu­man oil spill.”

More than 200 people had been ar­res­ted by 5 p.m. Sunday, and ar­rests re­mained on­go­ing at that time, a U.S. Park Po­lice spokes­wo­man said.

Stu­dent act­iv­ists are try­ing to boost pres­sure on the White House as a fi­nal de­cision draws closer on Key­stone, Tran­sCanada’s pro­posed pipeline to bring crude oil from Al­berta’s oil sands to Gulf Coast re­finer­ies.

“We are try­ing to es­cal­ate as much as we can,” said Mi­chael Green­berg, a Columbia Uni­versity sopho­more who helped or­gan­ize Sunday’s “XL Dis­sent” event. “We are not play­ing soft­ball with the pres­id­ent any more, and that relates to these things,” he said, re­fer­ring to the re­straints that act­iv­ists used to link them­selves to the White House gate.

The ar­rests, for what a U.S. Park Po­lice spokes­wo­man called mis­de­mean­or charges of block­ing pas­sage, began at about 1:30 p.m. after po­lice offered sev­er­al warn­ings in what was a cho­reo­graphed and peace­ful protest.

Or­gan­izers es­tim­ate that roughly 1,200 people took part in Sunday’s protest, with a sub­set of hun­dreds risk­ing ar­rest in front of the White House.

The event, which the groups 350.org and the En­ergy Ac­tion Co­ali­tion helped the stu­dent act­iv­ists or­gan­ize, has been in the works for months.

But or­gan­izers say that in­terest picked up after a State De­part­ment ana­lys­is re­leased in late Janu­ary con­cluded that build­ing the pipeline would be un­likely to cause a surge in green­house-gas emis­sions.

Obama has said he will not ap­prove the pipeline un­less he’s con­vinced that it would not “sig­ni­fic­antly” worsen car­bon emis­sions.

While the State ana­lys­is also modeled al­tern­at­ive scen­ari­os that showed Key­stone boost­ing emis­sions, the over­all find­ing was non­ethe­less a ma­jor blow to act­iv­ists who ar­gue that build­ing Key­stone will be a cata­lyst for car­bon-in­tens­ive oil sands de­vel­op­ment.

Late Feb­ru­ary brought an­oth­er blow to the anti-Key­stone move­ment.

The State De­part­ment’s in­spect­or gen­er­al re­leased an audit on Feb. 26 that con­cluded that State’s re­view pro­cess did not run afoul of the de­part­ment’s con­flict-of-in­terest rules. Key­stone op­pon­ents had al­leged the con­tract­or for State’s re­view was com­prom­ised.

A fi­nal Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion de­cision could come in the next few months, al­though there is no dead­line.

Act­iv­ists say ap­prov­al would not end their ef­forts and that more ac­tions would fol­low na­tion­wide.

350.org cofounder Jam­ie Henn said on Twit­ter that Sunday’s event is “just youth & on a ran­dom week­end in Feb­ru­ary,” adding: “Ima­gine what protest will look like if Obama moves to ap­prove KXL,” he said.

Green­berg, the Columbia Uni­versity stu­dent, said Obama has good reas­ons not to touch off the res­ist­ance to the pro­ject that would fol­low ap­prov­al.

“It is go­ing to be a tre­mend­ous time of en­vir­on­ment­al un­rest, and it is go­ing to cre­ate a com­pel­ling polit­ic­al reas­on for Obama to not ap­prove the pipeline if he wants the Demo­crats to not lose part of their base and if he wants to re­main on the right side of his­tory, which at the mo­ment is in ques­tion,” he said.

Act­iv­ists who gathered Sunday see the Key­stone de­cision as a cent­ral part of Obama’s re­cord on cli­mate, even as the ad­min­is­tra­tion moves ahead with first-time car­bon emis­sions stand­ards for power plants, toughens car and truck mileage rules, and takes oth­er steps.

“I think the pres­id­ent has made great strides on the things that are polit­ic­ally easy, and I think he hasn’t taken any polit­ic­ally dif­fi­cult steps on cli­mate change,” said Bris­tol.

It was the third set of ar­rests at the White House in civil-dis­obedi­ence ac­tions against the pipeline. More than 1,200 people were ar­res­ted over two weeks in Au­gust 2011, while 48 people were ar­res­ted in Feb­ru­ary 2013.

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