by Eric Niiler
Protests at the White House gates are a Washington ritual of sorts. But the past two weeks has seen a remarkable parade of people, from celebrities and religious activists to government workers and scientists, protesting a plan to ship Canadian oil to the US.
The project, known as the Keystone XL pipeline, would ship oil from Alberta's controversial tar sands to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico via the Midwest. Among those taking a stand against it, and getting arrested at the White House, is NASA climatologist James Hansen, one of the world's leading experts on climate change. Hansen says the tar sands are among the world's dirtiest sources of energy.
"Because it takes so much energy to squeeze this oil out of this tar sands, it's worse than burning coal'" Hansen says. "The science on that is very clear."
Hansen says that unlike liquid oil deposits, the tar sands hold a gooey sludge called bitumen, a mixture of clay, sand, petroleum, heavy metals and other minerals. Getting it out of the ground requires piping down steam or other solvents, a process that generates several times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions as conventional oil drilling. Hansen says tapping the tar sands will make it nearly impossible to put the brakes on rising levels of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere.
"If we put the tar sands and tar shale CO2 into the atmosphere, there's no way we can stabilize climate," Hansen says. "We will hand our children and grandchildren a situation that is out of their control."
Hansen and the others want President Obama to kill the pipeline. Author and activist Bill McKibben says the fight over Keystone is a test for the White House.
"This is the biggest challenge the president has had on climate and energy," McKibbon says. "And the good news is the president can take care of this one himself."
Since the Keystone pipeline falls under the jurisdiction of the State Department, President Obama, rather than Congress, will have the final say. And McKibben says Obama's decision will be remembered next year.
"Leaders of all the major environmental groups in this country, from the corporate friendly Environmental Defense Fund to the radical Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network, joined together in a letter this week saying this is the environmental challenge between now and the election," McKibbon said. "And we expect nothing less than you will block this pipeline."
But Shawn Howard, a spokesman for Trans Canada, which is building the Keystone project, says the protesters are misguided if they think that stopping the pipeline will stop the flow of oil from what he calls the "oil sands."
Howard says the oil will flow whether or not the US buys it. In fact, some of it is already being piped to British Columbia. But he says what would be lost is about 20,000 badly-needed construction and manufacturing jobs, most in the US.
"We will begin almost immediately to put those 20,000 workers to work," Howard says. "Not only that, this is private sector money that is funding one of the largest infrastructure projects in North America, and there won't be any government money that goes toward this."
Transcanada already has agreements with six American unions to supply labor, and several have come out in support of the project.
Meanwhile Canada's ambassador to the United States, Gary Doer, says his country is working to make what supporters call the oil sands less damaging to the climate. And Doer says the pipeline will mean a more reliable source of energy for Americans.
"We believe that the oil sands in Canada have improved in terms of its environmental sustainability," Doer says. "In terms of environmental challenges, its true it represents a challenge for all of us. But it also represents an opportunity for energy security for both Canada and the United States."
Despite objections from the EPA, the US State Department released a report last week saying that the project passes environmental muster. So it's now up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to assess the merits based on national security needs, and make a recommendation to president Obama.
The environmentalists gathered at the White House have made it clear that their support for the president's reelection may hinge on his decision. But Georgetown University government professor Stephen J. Wayne says that greens lack the political and fundraising clout of the unions that would benefit from pipeline jobs.
Still, Wayne says, a decision in favor of the pipeline would have some political cost.
"The problem the president has to face with the environmental community is a problem not with them voting Republican," Wayne says. "Not when you have Republican candidates saying they don't believe in global warming. But you have to worry about them staying home."
The state department begins public hearings on the pipeline this month. A final decision is expected by the end of the year.