Hundreds arrested during pipeline protest at White House

ByABC News
September 1, 2011, 10:53 PM

WASHINGTON -- Mary Mann, a 68-year-old grandmother from Atlanta, had never been arrested — until this week in front of the White House.

"I'm tremendously concerned about our children," says the petite woman in sneakers and a floppy sun hat. She's holding a sign with a campaign appeal President Obama once made to free America from the "tyranny of oil."

Mann is one of 842 Americans, young and old alike, who had been arrested through Thursday during a two-week protest — ending today — against a controversial U.S.-Canadian pipeline.

The sit-in reflects the increasingly vociferous, and well-organized, campaign to thwart the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline extension that would carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, through six U.S. states to refineries along the Gulf Coast.

Opponents — including actors Daryl Hannah, Mark Ruffalo and Margot Kidder— are painting the $7 billion private project as a litmus test of Obama's commitment to fight climate change. "Which side are you on, Obama?" they chanted this week before being calmly handcuffed.

Debating best source for oil

To move ahead, the project needs a presidential permit. The State Department says a decision is expected by year's end. On Aug. 26, it issued a final environmental review, concluding the pipeline would have no significant impact and Canada's tar sands will be developed whether the project is approved or not.

Calgary-based TransCanada, the pipeline's owner, says the project will create jobs and reduce U.S. dependence on unstable foreign oil sources.

Its spokesman, Terry Cunha, says the United States imports more than half its oil, so the question is simple: "Does the U.S. want to get crude oil from Canada … or places like the Middle East and Libya?"

Opponents know they have a tough fight. Tar Sands Action, a diverse coalition of environmentalists, farmers and landowners, argues that the pipeline is unnecessary and some of the oil will likely be exported.

Critics say the existing Keystone pipeline, completed last year, has already spilled 21,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River, so extending it would cause other spills that would contaminate more groundwater. Also, they say that greenhouse gas emission from the development and use of tar sands are higher than for other crude oil.

"In 2008, the president made strong commitments on climate change," says Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental group. She says Obama now has to prove his support by nixing the pipeline's permit — something he can do without Congress.

White House spokesman Clark Stevens says Obama is leaving the details to the State Department. He points to the president's remarks in April when he said: "It if looks like I'm putting my fingers on the scale before the science is done, then people may question the merits of the decision later on." Obama added that "importing oil from countries that are stable and friendly is a good thing."

To ramp up the pressure on him, opponents launched the sit-in just two days before the Aug. 22 opening a mile away of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial — a tribute to a man who championed civil disobedience.

"We had no idea this would work," says co-organizer Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a non-profit group.

"People have responded beyond our expectations," he says, adding that more than 2,000 people signed up to participate.