Pledging resistance: KXL opponents prep for decision

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A demonstrator is arrested outside the White House. – Photo:

Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline are making plans for a massive act of non-violent civil disobedience, but they hope they can throw a nationwide victory party instead.

Sometime in the next several months, President Barack Obama is expected to decide whether to authorize a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, and environmentalists concerned about the project’s impact on global warming, energy policy, water quality and the boreal forest have put the president on notice. More than 91,000 people have pledged to commit civil disobedience, if necessary, in opposition to the possible approval of the pipeline.

More than 100 actions are scheduled in 37 states.

“We’re planning an unprecedented set of actions,” said Kaja Rebane, an activist in Madison who has taken the national Keystone XL Pledge of Resistance at and undergone training to organize activists and engage in civil disobedience. “The idea is to prepare at the local level . . . to send a strong message that we care about not having this pipeline move forward.”

Rebane, a UW-Madison grad student working in environmental studies and applied economics, said building the pipeline would lock the United States into dependency on the tar sands’ dirty oil for decades. “It’s very obvious to me there are better ways of producing and conserving energy,” she said.

The pipeline — estimated to cost $7 billion — has become central to the debate over climate change and U.S. energy policy. 

KXL would transmit crude oil from the tar sands in western Canada, stretching about 1,179 miles and crossing through the American heartland. The pipeline would cross Montana and South Dakota and, at a hub in Nebraska, connect to pipelines to carry crude to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Environmentalists say the Keystone XL would increase tar sands oil production, which generates at least three times more carbon pollution than conventional oil, it would poison communities from Alberta to the Gulf Coast and it would further destruction of Canada’s boreal forest.

Yet in a long-awaited review of the project, the State Department said there were no major environmental objections to the pipeline, which requires presidential approval to cross a U.S. border.


Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Senate Republicans in early March urged approval of the pipeline.

Walker, writing to Secretary of State John Kerry, claimed it would create about 9,000 jobs in the state over 20 years.

The Republican governor campaigned for his first term with a jobs creation platform but to date has failed to deliver on his promises. Walker told Kerry the pipeline would “provide numerous economic benefits and improve our energy security.”

He wrote, “Building the Keystone XL pipeline is in the best interest of Wisconsinites and Americans, and I kindly ask that the department of State complete its review quickly and grant TransCanada the presidential permit that is needed to start work on the pipeline.”

The Wisconsin Senate also sent Kerry a letter, stating, “The project will support over 42,000 jobs and $2 billion in wages for American workers in just two years” and Wisconsin could see more than 1,000 jobs as a result of the pipeline in five years.

The push from Wisconsin Republicans coincided with a national drive by the American Petroleum Institute and other pipeline proponents to flood the White House and State Department with at least 500,000 comments.

It also drew criticism and questions about how the state GOP came up with its job estimates.

“I don’t know where our governor got his number,” said Rebane. She pointed out that the State Department report said after the initial two years of construction, pipeline operations would require just 50 employees — 35 permanent employees and 15 temporary contractors.

“It’s clear the Keystone XL will create relatively few jobs over time,” Rebane concluded.

She also referred to a Cornell University study conducted in 2011 that said the pipeline could destroy more jobs than it created. The study considered the job loss that would be caused if Midwesterners had to pay more for their gas — 10 to 20 cents per gallon — due to the pipeline diverting oil from Midwest refineries to the Gulf region. 


Pipeline opponents are no less vocal and far more active than its proponents.

In February, a massive student-led demonstration against the pipeline led to arrests outside the White House.

More arrests are expected in the U.S. capital on Earth Day and in the days during and after. The Cowboy and Indian Alliance — a group of tribal communities, farmers and ranchers — will arrive in D.C. on April 22 on horseback to set up a camp and lead a march on the National Mall on April 27.

Bill McKibben, founder of the activist group, said the Keystone XL battle began with native people and Nebraska ranchers, so it’s fitting they’re at the forefront of the Earth Day campaign in D.C.

“We’ve gone wrong in this country before when we didn’t listen to its original inhabitants; let’s hope Keystone becomes the opportunity to show we’re wising up,” he said.

“The biggest cancer spreading upon Mother Earth is the tar sands,” said protest organizer Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a spiritual leader among the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota people.

Earth Day protests are being planned in other communities, and activists affiliated with the Keystone Pledge of Resistance campaign are organizing vigils for the days leading up to a final decision from Obama.

Depending on the administration’s decision, there will be either a massive, nationwide display of non-violent civil disobedience or a victory party.

More than 120 people have undergone civil disobedience training in the Madison area — and other training is planned this spring.

A rejection of the project, however, would trigger a public celebration, a “big thank you,” as Rebane put it.

U.S. agencies are reviewing the State Department environmental impact report and will weigh in on the project before Kerry sends a national interest determination — an NID — to Obama. 

During a Senate appropriations hearing in March, Kerry, long considered a leader on environmental issues, declined to talk about his views on the pipeline.

“I’m approaching this, you know, tabula rasa,” he said. “I’m going to look at all the arguments, both sides, all sides, whatever, evaluate them and make the best judgment I can about what is in the national interest.”