Mass climate change protest in DC

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By JAMES THOMAS

On Sunday, Feb. 17, as many as 50,000 people rallied and marched in winds and near freezing temperatures in Washington, D.C., to protest Transcanada’s proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. The demonstration, dubbed Forward On Climate Change, is believed to have been the largest climate change action in U.S. history.

The Sierra Club, 350.org, and Hip Hop Caucus were the primary organizers of the event, and numerous other environmental groups helped to build it. The crowd was quite diverse, with people from all over the country and with a wide range of political views who were concerned about the catastrophic impact that the XL pipeline would have on our planet if the Obama administration approves it.

Speakers ranged from 350.org founder Bill McKibben to Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation in Alberta, Canada. An eco-socialist contingent gathered at the Smithsonian metro stop and marched to the main rally to send the message that “a different world can only be built in fields, factories, and streets, not by politicians walking the corridors of power in Washington.” Smaller but similar demonstrations also took place in Austin, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco.

The Keystone XL pipeline, with a $7 billion price tag, would stretch 2000 miles from the tar sands of Alberta to oil refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. Outside of Russia and China it would be the world’s largest oil pipeline and would move over one million barrels of crude oil every day.  The pipeline’s owner, Canadian company Transcanada, has been buying up property through the American West and pushing states to inflict eminent domain upon resistant locals.

In certain areas of the country construction has already gotten under way.  In fact, 485 miles of the pipeline that run from Oklahoma to Texas are already complete, making the entire project halfway finished. This segment of the pipeline, according to The Texas Tribune, costs $2.3 billion and will transport crude oil between a storage facility in Cushing, Okla., and refineries located in the Nederland area of Southeast Texas.

Of course, Transcanada is doing all of this while assuring people that it will create jobs and provide the U.S. with oil from an ally. But the dirty Alberta tar sands oil represents a major threat to the climate. According to Oil Change International, emissions from tar sands extraction are between 3.2 and 4.5 higher than equivalent emissions from conventional oil drilling in North America. Moreover, petcoke, a byproduct of tar sands mining that is used as fuel in power plants, yields an average of 53.6 percent more carbon dioxide than an equivalent amount of coal. The only method to avoid the worst effects of the catastrophe caused by climate change is to put into effect a rapid and thorough transition off of fossil fuels, regardless of where they come from.

Transcanada’s promise of jobs is illusory. Most of the work supplied by the pipeline will be on temporary construction jobs. Corey Goulet, vice president of Keystone Pipeline projects for Transcanada, estimates that all said and done only 20 to 30 permanent jobs will be created in Texas. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader and others have pointed out in addition that most of the oil will be exported once it is refined in the Gulf of Mexico.

Obama ostensibly rejected Transcanada’s bid to start building the northern section in early 2012, but it appears that the Canadian corporation is expecting to be given permission to proceed, considering all the money it has invested in construction thus far. The progression of the project has not gone uncontested, however. Forward on Climate Change was only the most recent demonstration against the pipeline.  In August 2011, 350.org organized a large demonstration outside of the White House to pressure Obama to deny Transcanada a permit; over 1000 people were arrested over the course of the month in acts of civil disobedience.

More recently, a Texas-based organization called Tar Sands Blockade was denied the right to protest alongside the pipeline’s route after Transcanada obtained an injunction prohibiting such activity. The group has since switched its focus to working with communities who live near the Gulf where the oil will be refined. Texas Rice Land Partners of Jefferson County, Texas, are struggling against eminent domain that Transcanada is trying to exercise over their land.

Whether or not the rest of the pipeline gets approved could have a lot to do with the destructive logic of neoliberal economic policy. The North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other similar free trade agreements include unprecedented protection for corporate investors—most often at the expense of working people. Through these measures, foreign countries can gain control to each other’s natural resources, businesses, and all forms of public or private property to exploit them for maximum profit without regard for safety, health, or community.

Generally, the United States has used these treaty provisions to force concessions for its corporations in Latin America and elsewhere. However, Transcanada could potentially turn the tables, by threatening to invoke Chapter 11 of NAFTA and sue the United States government if it denies the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. The Obama administration might then cite this “threat” as an excuse to approve the pipeline. The Obama administration is actually considering putting provisions similar to NAFTA’s Chapter 11 into its upcoming Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement. Our laws are written for the corporations that are destroying our planet.

This shows that it is impractical to believe that Obama will take a principled stance against the Keystone XL pipeline; only sustained mass action by concerned Americans will give him cause to deny the pipeline construction. Similarly, if serious measures are to be taken against climate change, it will require building a giant movement for mass action, independent of the Democratic and Republican parties. The Forward On Climate Change rally was a significant step toward the construction of such a movement.

Photo: Malanie Blanding / switchboard.nrdc.org