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Aug 222011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

It’s difficult to tell how much protesters at the tar sands action in Washington D.C. are accomplishing — at this point.

A group of 70 , gathered to oppose the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would carry tar sands oil across the midsection of the US, was arrested on Saturday, the first day of the planned civil disobedience action. The group included environmentalist Bill McKibben, former White House official and Yale dean Gus Speth and gay rights activist Lt. Dan Choi and dozens of lesser known, but no less concerned, citizens. Forty-five of those arrested were held until Monday, after sleeping on cold jail floors. That was far longer than they’d anticipated based on earlier US Park Police statements that protesters would be quickly released after processing.

Another 52 were arrested Monday, but were promptly released. Tuesday, a new group will re-stage the protest in front of the White House, and presumably also be arrested, and so on, until Sept. 3, the end of this rolling wave of protests.

The arrests have generated significant media coverage.  The New York Times editorialized against the pipeline (though the Wall Street Journal earlier editorialized in favor of the pipeline). In addition, CTV Canada, CBS News and Reuters covered the arrests, according to the Tar Sands Action website.

The coverage will undoubtedly raise awareness of the 1,700 mile pipeline project scheduled to carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to Texas refineries. But whether it will move the Obama Administration to turn down the permit for the pipeline would be a bet with long odds.

The pipeline would bring jobs, likely in the thousands, though how many is a matter of debate, and it would definitely bring oil, giving it political traction both with people concerned about the economy and those worried about the “energy security” of the US. The US Chamber of Commerce has let its support be known and so has the American Petroleum Institute. Those are some Big Oil tailwinds working to push Keystone XL forward in all its sticky, corrosive, and potentially leaky, glory.

Environmentalists one again find themselves on the other side of this economic equation, trying to convince the public that the cost to the environment of this type of oil is far too high. Tar sands oil — from extraction to use — is believed to release three times the carbon compared with the drilling and use of regular crude oil. From an environmental standpoint, and from the standpoint of scientists worried about greenhouse gases and tipping points in climate change, past which is a no man’s land yet to be described, the cost is too great.

Many have seen over the edge of the tar sands cliff and decided it was time to protest. And it’s terrific to witness these people taking the damage to our planet seriously enough to disrupt their daily routine, and risk a night or two on the jail house floor. Those protesting have come from established enviro groups, and from living rooms across the pipeline’s proposed path. Native Americans, ranchers and grandmothers are coming together to stand up to power.

It’s a page right out of the civil disobedience playbook.

Now a history lesson from that book: It took a solid decade of sustained civil disobedience and peaceful resistance in many locations (and prior to that decades of debate) to win the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change, we might not have anywhere near that amount of time.

(Oh yeah, if you want to support the protesters, you can send your picture showing solidarity to the 35o.org website. And if you are thinking that only a few people care about this issue, you might want to read the many comments at the same page.)

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