Keystone pipeline protesters arrested at White House

With chants of "Hey, Obama, we don't want no climate drama" urging them on, about 50 activists were arrested outside the White House on Wednesday while protesting the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

Among those taken into custody were actress Daryl Hannah and civil-rights activist and former politician Julian Bond.


Green groups led the effort, escalating their pressure on President Obama — who has final say on the pipeline because it crosses into Canada — to nix the project.

"The Keystone pipeline has become the purest test that there's ever been on whether the president is serious about doing something about climate change or not," climate activist and 350.org founder Bill McKibben said in a speech at Lafayette Square before he and 47 others eventually zip-tied themselves to the White House gate.

Keystone protesters
Activists gathered outside the 
White House Wednesday to protest the 
Keystone XL oil sands pipeline
 Zack Colman/The Hill

The Sierra Club engaged in civil disobedience for the first time in its 120-year history, highlighting the emphasis the environmental community is placing on the pipeline.

The move underscores the prominence green groups are giving the issue as part of a larger effort to prod the president to take executive action on climate issues.

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, who was arrested in the protest, said he wasn't concerned about potentially burning his group's political capital on an administration decision that many observers feel could go either way.

"We don't make calculations based on whether it increases our political brand inside the Beltway. We make decisions on what does our country need in order to realize a clean-energy future," Brune told The Hill.

It was the second time 350.org has helped lead civil disobedience at the White House on the issue, with 1,253 people getting arrested in August 2011. It also helped organize a larger demonstration in November 2011 that had no arrests.

Michael Kieschnick, president of mobile phone company CREDO Mobile, told The Hill the difference between that event and Wednesday is the uncertainty that surrounds Keystone's future.

Those August 2011 protests, in which Kieschnick was arrested, helped highlight Keystone, he said. 

Pressure from environmentalists — a part of Obama's voting base — likely played a role in the president's decision to punt a ruling on the pipeline until after the 2012 election.

"Instead of there being huge momentum of, 'Oh yes, this is going to get approved,' now people wonder. They genuinely wonder," Kieschnick said.

While greens were right outside Obama's lawn on Wednesday, the president is also feeling the heat from lawmakers and union allies.

While not all labor unions support Keystone, Obama’s delay irritated some in labor that want the project to go forward because it would produce jobs for their members.

The wait has gone on long enough, the AFL-CIO said Wednesday following the anti-Keystone protest. Sean McGarvey, the labor federation’s president of building and construction trades, said AFL-CIO would step up its attempts to sway Obama to approve the pipeline.

“I expect the labor federation in the next couple weeks to come out affirmatively in support of this pipeline,” McGarvey said in a joint press call with the American Petroleum Institute (API).

API also announced it would intensify its messaging campaign in favor of the project.

API CEO Jack Gerard said the lobby shop would spend a “significant” amount of money on an advertising, grassroots and social media effort to mobilize the project’s supporters. He said API’s manufacturing, labor and municipal allies would “respond to make clear” their opinions on the pipeline.

Gerard portrayed the project as a way for Obama to capitalize on goals of providing jobs for middle-class families — a tack that many on Capitol Hill have taken as well.

Republicans and some Democrats have cast the forthcoming ruling on Keystone as an economic issue. A majority of lawmakers on Capitol Hill support the pipeline and say it will be a boon for jobs.

Those legislators also contend TransCanada Corp., the firm building the pipeline destined for Texas, will build the valve west to export oil sands to China. They say that since the pipeline might get built anyway, the United States should reap the benefits of getting energy from its trusted neighbor.

Obama also must consider the nation's relationship with Canada, which is banking on Keystone churning out sizable production from its lucrative oil sands.

Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird and Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryChina emitted more greenhouse gasses than US, developed world combined in 2019: analysis Overnight Energy: Republicans request documents on Kerry's security clearance process| EPA official directs agency to ramp up enforcement in overburdened communities | Meet Flint prosecutor Kym Worthy Republicans request documents on Kerry's security clearance process MORE — whose department is currently reviewing the plan — met last week to discuss Keystone. In an appearance together after the meeting, Kerry said he expects a decision in the "near term."

The green activists, who were joined by Nebraska farmers and ranchers, civil rights leader  Bond and others, said blocking the pipeline was bigger than just one project.

Green groups are planning a Sunday rally in Washington, D.C. that will focus on climate issues more broadly. They have focused their advocacy on Obama, noting he could bypass Congress and take executive action on climate.

The activists on Wednesday painted the Keystone decision as a potential watershed moment that could encourage greater adoption of renewable energy.

"I'm happy to give the Canadians everything they want, except this," Bond told The Hill. "We can't decide on our policy based on the Canadians liking it or disliking it."

This story was last updated at 2:46 p.m.