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As pipeline decision looms, thousands protest

Matthew Dondiego

This past weekend, approximately 35,000 protestors descended on Washington for the largest climate rally in the history of the United States. WAMC’s Matthew Dondiego was there and files this report.

Organized by groups such as the Sierra Club, 350.org, and the Hip Hop Caucus, The Forward on Climate rally drew activists from across the country.

Rally goers called for President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that would transport what environmentalists charge is high-polluting tar sands oil from Canada, through the heart of the United States to be refined and exported from the Gulf of Mexico.

Daniel Platt, a member of the Occupy Albany movement who traveled to Washington for the rally, believes that while it is crucial to block the Keystone pipeline, the project is only a part of the discussion.

“It’s a larger part of a more complete puzzle which would be climate catastrophe and you want to take out as many pieces as possible. The pipeline is just one part,” Platt said.

Environmentalists describe the pipeline as a “carbon bomb” that would act like a “dirty needle” being stuck into America. TransCanada, the company responsible for the pipeline proposal, believes the 1,179-mile pipeline will increase the United States' energy independence and provide a more stable source of consistent energy for years to come.

Environmental activists are holding President Obama accountable for his strong words on climate change after he mentioned it in both his Inaugural Address and the State of The Union.

Van Jones, former Obama advisor on green jobs and a prominent member of the Natural Resources Defense Council, had a strong statement for the president.

“If the pipeline goes through, Mr. President, the first thing it runs over will not be farm land. The first thing it runs over will not be small towns,” Jones said. "If you let this pipeline go through, Mr. President, the first thing it runs over is the credibility of the president of the United States of America.”

Jones also weighed in on the difficulties of providing citizens with a stable country and economy in the face of extreme climate issues.

“It’s very hard to have secure country and a secure economy if you don’t have a stable climate. Catastrophic climate driven weather events are costing us billions of dollars, they’re costing American lives, and they’re disrupting American agriculture,” Jones said. “If al-Qaeda had figured out a way to do this to America we’d call it an act of war. The problem is we’re doing it to ourselves.”

Supporters of the pipeline claim that it will create more than 20,000 jobs in construction and manufacturing and an additional 118,000 jobs in related fields.

However, those against the project argue that only a handful of the jobs created would be permanent.

Jill Stein, who ran for president on the Green Party line last year, believes that the job estimation is overblown and that far more opportunity lies in the clean energy sector.

“Moving the investments from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy, we can create 100 times as many jobs right now in clean renewable energy, weatherization and so on. So yes, let’s talk about jobs,” said Stein.

Echoing Stein’s belief that clean energy offers job creation as well as environmental protection, Andy Simon, an organizer for 350 Vermont, also adds that there are many jobs available in solar panel and windmill production.

Credit Matthew Dondiego

“You can’t base our economy on dirty oil, we just can’t do it. There are plenty of jobs building windmills, building solar panels, all sorts of jobs out there in renewable energy we just have to be able to point ourselves towards them and reorient the economy,” said Simon.

While many are concerned with the domestic environmental consequences of the pipeline, activist and 350.org founder Bill Mckibben fears that the pipeline could have global effects as well.

“It would be detrimental for the planet, that’s the thing. This is second largest carbon on earth,” he said. “We have to leave it in the ground. The climate scientists all say you can’t burn this stuff, there’s too much carbon. And the other way to look at it is, if we blocked it, it would be an amazing legacy. It would be the first time that a world leader said no to a big project because of climate concerns and the message that would send to the rest of the world would be electric.”

Although nearly all of those in attendance were adamantly against the construction of the pipeline, some attended the rally with the intention of debunking what they deemed as the false realities of the anti-pipeline movement.

Alex Epstein is the founder of the Southern California-based Center for Industrial Progress.

“Our motto is: 'Improve the planet.' It’s based on the idea that through energy and technology we make the planet a dramatically better place to live,” explained Epstein.

Epstein believes that the pipeline is an extremely efficient way to transport a crucial energy resource.

“A pipeline in general is a more efficient means of carrying a very important resource and if it ends up in the international market that’s fantastic because people are buying it to do productive things.”

Eric Dennis, a senior fellow at the Center for Industrial Progress, defends the project by claiming that the pipeline, like anything else, has it risks.

“There are always risks associated with any form of energy, association with the transportation of any form of energy, or transportation of any other industrial commodities,” said Dennis. “The question is what are the risks in relation to the actual benefits we get. And for something like transporting oil, where it’s literally the lifeblood of civilization, the risk is so minimal compared to that that it is kind of a no brainer.”

Credit Matthew Dondiego

While the focus of the rally was the transportation of a harmful source of energy, at least one protestor believed that there are other concerns to be raised.

Sitting cross-legged against a tree, Eric Lewis of Maryland was applying the finishing touches to a piece of skinned fox fur.

“The central issue that we’re looking at today is that everybody is focused on consumption. Everybody is a consumer. We’ve got people who are unconscious consumers and then you’ve conscious consumers, but still the focus is on consumption,” he said. “Since the fundamental problem is consumption the answer is for us to shift our focus to production.”

In the days following the rally, it has been reported that during the protest, President Obama was on golf vacation. Among those who teed off with Obama were Tiger Woods, former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, and oil and gas executives Jim Crane and Milton Carroll, both of whom have substantial stakes in companies dealing with carbon-based services like the Keystone XL pipeline.

White House spokesman Clark Stevens issued a statement early Wednesday reminding folks of Obama’s recent strong words on the issue saying, “The President has already taken historic action on this issue,” and, “If Congress will not take action on this important issue he will continue to build on the progress underway by his Administration to confront this threat."

Despite the attempt at reassuring environmentalists that Obama is serious about taking a stance on climate change, activists are alarmed at the access big oil and gas companies have to the president.

With Obama’s final decision on the pipeline expected to be made in the coming weeks, the president faces crippling pressure from each side of the debate.

As the president weighs his options, author and activist Bill Mckibben issued this warning;

“When you’re in a hole, stop digging.”

WAMC News Intern Matthew Dondiego is a senior at the State University of New York at Albany, where he is studying journalism.