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Stop the Keystone XL: Nearly 400 Arrested at the Largest Youth-Led Civil Disobedience Action in a Generation

Photo of youth protest at White House

Nearly 400 people were arrested in willful acts of civil disobedience at the White House on Sunday as part of the XL Dissent action, part of the ongoing effort to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. It was the largest youth-led civil disobedience action in a generation. Arrestees pledged that if President Obama didn’t stop the pipeline with his pen, they would do it with their bodies.

“We’re already seeing the effects of climate change,” said Spencer Johnson, one of those arrested. “It’s our future that we’re talking about, and the future of generations to come. We know this is important enough to get arrested for.”

Johnson is a senior environmental studies major at Franklin and Marshall University in Lancaster, Pa. According to Johnson, there were more than 1,000 students at the action from over 80 universities in 42 states. Roughly a third of attendees committed to civil disobedience and received a 90-minute training the night before the protest, during which they were walked through each phase of the arrest and had their legal questions answered.

The XL Dissent action was the first time Johnson had ever been arrested. “People are out there getting arrested for this every day. There’s the Michigan 3, the people in Port Arthur, Tex., people in the U.K. standing up to fracking,” Johnson said.

It’s so uplifting to be a part of this movement, because we all know that there’s so much at stake, and it’s so much bigger than any one person or organization.

Photo by Jenna Pope.

The Keystone XL pipeline continues to be a source of contention, as President Obama is expected to make a decision on pipeline builder TransCanada’s proposed route for Keystone XL’s northern leg by late summer or early fall – the pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of tar sands crude oil per day across 2,000 miles in seven states. The Southern leg, which runs from Cushing, Okla., to Port Arthur, is already built and underway. Obama, who fast-tracked the Southern leg by executive order, previously rejected the originally proposed route for the Northern leg in February 2012 on the grounds that there wasn’t enough time to perform a thorough review of the project within the time given.

What’s actually being piped through the existing Keystone pipeline and what would be piped through the proposed XL pipeline is diluted bitumen. The extraction process is less similar to conventional drilling and more akin to strip mining, emitting that much more CO2 than conventional oil drilling. The community of Mayflower, Ark., was covered in 12,000 barrels of diluted bitumen after an Exxon pipeline carrying the material spilled into a residential community in early 2013. Former NASA scientist James Hansen said it would be “game over” for the climate if the XL pipeline were built.

“It’s not going to flow - it’s going to sink down, get stuck in the sediment and pollute everything it touches,” Johnson said. “It’s gum on the bottom of your foot that you can’t scrape off. You’ll never get rid of it, even if it’s just one spill.”

Phase one of the Keystone pipeline had 11 spills in its first year of operation, all of which occurred at pumping stations. TransCanada had originally predicted that the pipeline would have only one spill roughly every seven years. The proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline would go through the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies drinking water to 15 million people. Because tar sands oil is much more toxic than conventional crude oil, concerns of oil corroding the pipeline enough to cause a spill are amplified.

However, as environmental journalist Steve Horn of DeSmogBlog has written, oil from the Alberta tar sands is still finding its way into the United States through other means, like rail. Warren Buffett has announced plans for rail cars he owns through BNSF Railway and Union Tank Car Company to be upgraded to carry tar sands oil. And work just started on the Flanagan South Pipeline, which will carry 600,000 barrels of diluted bitumen from Pontiac, Ill., to Cushing, Okla. Once other pipelines and train cars have brought tar sands crude to the pipeline in Cushing, it’ll be shipped off to Port Arthur.

“Unfortunately, I think the environmental community doesn’t understand that one half of the pipeline already exists,” Horn said in an interview with The Real News Network. “It’s already very crucial, and it’s going to have a huge climate change impact and ecological impact.”

Photo by Jenna Pope.

Proponents of more pipelines argue that the United States needs to decrease dependence on foreign oil. However, as Philip Verleger, a prominent energy economist, has said, the Canadian tar sands oil boom is meant only to expand TransCanada’s profits, not lower the price of gas in the United States. Verleger called the shipping route from Port Arthur to Asian markets the “Tar Sands Silk Road to China,” where ships will travel from the Gulf of Mexico around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa and Cape Horn in South America to Asian governments depending on fossil fuel to expand their economies.

Verleger also made the point that Texas oil refineries have already made long-term commitments to buy oil from Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Mexico, and don’t have any interest in buying oil from Canada. Because Canada’s Alberta province has an oversupply of tar sands oil and indigenous tribal nations in British Columbia have pledged massive resistance to any pipeline construction on their territory, trucking and piping tar sands oil to Port Arthur via Cushing is the only option left.

"There will be too much oil, it's got to go somewhere, and it's going to China," Verleger said in an interview with National Geographic.

However, environmental activists in the United States remain committed to civil disobedience as a tactic to stop not just the northern leg of the Keystone XL, but the development of carcinogenic fossil fuels around the country. Michigan activists Barbara Carter, Vicci Hamlin and Lisa Leggio are facing jail time after putting their bodies in the way of pipeline construction on the Kalamazoo River, in the wake of a spill that dumped 819,000 gallons of oil into one of the river’s tributaries in 2010.

The whole goal is awareness," Leggio said in an interview with Democracy Now. "So we’re getting that out to more and more people. Don’t doubt for one second the ripple effect of what you do.You throw one stone and it creates a ripple. Never forget that.

As of the time of this writing, 86,260 people have committed to using civil disobedience to stop Keystone XL pipeline construction through CREDO Mobile and XL Dissent arrestee Gary Roland is confident that the next generation of college students will galvanize their campuses to mobilize against pipeline construction in the future.

“The real strength of the action is that now over a thousand students will return to over 80 campuses with a new respect for the power of civil disobedience,” Roland said. “I get the feeling that over the next couple of months, we will see more and more direct actions like this in communities all over the country."

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