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10,000 Surround White House to Protest Keystone XL Tar Sands Oil Pipeline

StoryNovember 07, 2011
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Bill McKibben

co-founder and director of He is author of the book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

More than 10,000 protesters surrounded the White House on Sunday calling on President Obama to reject the proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast. The protest came exactly a year before the 2012 election, and the pipeline is shaping up to be a major political issue. Last week, President Obama said for the first time he will make the final decision on whether to approve the controversial 1,700-mile pipeline proposed by TransCanada, which would transport oil from the Alberta tar sands fields to refineries in Texas. Up until now, Obama said the final decision rested with the State Department. "[Sunday’s protest] really underlined that this has become not only the biggest environmental flash point in many, many years, but maybe the issue in recent times in the Obama administration when he’s been most directly confronted by people in the street," said leading environmentalist Bill McKibben, a key organizer in the protest. [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Over 10,000 protesters surrounded the White House Sunday calling on President Obama to reject the proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast. The protest came exactly a year before the 2012 election, and the pipeline is shaping up to be a major political issue. The Los Angeles Times reported today the Obama administration is considering a move that could delay a decision on the pipeline until after the election. The administration may require sponsors to reduce the project’s environmental risks before it can be approved.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, President Obama said for the first time he’ll make the final decision on whether to approve TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas. Up until then, Obama said the final decision rested with the State department. Obama made the comment in an interview a local TV station in Nebraska, where there has been fierce opposition to the pipeline.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The State Department is in charge of analyzing this, because this is a pipeline coming in from Canada. They’ll be giving me a report over the next several months. And, you know, my general attitude is, what is best for the American people? What’s best for our economy, both short term and long term? But also, what’s best for the health of the American people? Because we don’t want, for example, aquifers that are adversely affected. Folks in Nebraska obviously would be directly impacted. And so, you know, we want to make sure that we’re taking the long view on these issues.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the Keystone XL pipeline, we go to Washington, D.C., to speak with Bill McKibben, one of the key organizers of yesterday’s protest, founder of

Bill, welcome to Democracy Now! Tell us what happened and why you are protesting —, let me correct myself.

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, Amy, yesterday was a gorgeous day in Washington. It was a gorgeous day in the weather, but it was even more beautiful, the sort of spirit outside the White House. We’d thought maybe we could get enough people to ring the White House, something that hadn’t been done apparently since the 1960s, according to some of the veteran activists on hand. But we were a little worried that there’d be enough, because even three months ago, no one in this country really knew very much about this pipeline, except in Nebraska. As it turns out, people poured in from across the Eastern seaboard and as far west as Chicago. We surrounded the White House three, four and five deep. It was a beautiful, beautiful sight.

And it really underlined that this has become not only the biggest environmental flash point in many, many years, but maybe the issue in recent times in the Obama administration when he’s been most directly confronted by people in the street. In this case, people willing, hopeful, almost dying for him to be the Barack Obama of 2008. Every banner that people carried yesterday had quotes from that wonderful rhetoric of that election: "Time to end the tyranny of oil," "In my administration, the rise of the oceans will begin to slow." We’re looking for some kind of glimmer, some kind of echo, of that Barack Obama to re-emerge and do the right thing on this pipeline.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Bill, the administration has already taken about three years, and now there’s this report in the L.A. Times that it may postpone a decision for another year. Your sense of—clearly this is the impact of this movement, but do you consider, if they do decide to postpone this, a victory of sorts?

BILL McKIBBEN: So, the best case is, Barack Obama says, "You know what? This thing is a bad idea. My foremost climatologist, Jim Hansen at NASA, says that if we tap the tar sands heavily, it’s game over for the climate. That should be enough." But if he also says, or instead says, "It’s very clear that this process has been completely flawed and that the environmental review that the State Department conducted was a joke, and so we’re sending it back to square one for a fresh, independent review," well, I think there’s no way this pipeline proposal would ever survive that.

One of the things we’ve discovered as this has become a real issue in the course of this fall is how corrupt and warped that process was. If you want a poster child for Occupy Wall Street, check this out. TransCanada was allowed to pick the company that would review it. The company that they picked, a company called Entrix, if you did deep investigative reporting, i.e. if you clicked on their website, you would immediately find out that one of Entrix’s major clients was TransCanada itself. It’s no wonder, I guess, then, that this, quote-unquote, "environmental review" decided that a 1,700-mile pipeline to the second-largest pool of carbon on earth would have no environmental impact. It’s an utter joke. And it’s—you know, if only for purposes of the process, it would be a good thing to send it back. The best thing would simply be to say, "This is a bad idea all around. Let’s get on with the work of converting our economy to renewable energy and producing the kind of jobs that that would create."

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Bill, the claim of proponents that this project would create large numbers of new jobs was also punctured considerably by a recent Washington Post article. Could you talk about that?

BILL McKIBBEN: That was the other piece of very good news yesterday. After months of reporters repeating the same figure from the one study founded by—funded by TransCanada, that there would be 20,000 jobs created, finally a reporter did the work of tracking it down, figured out that it was a complete joke. Even the head of TransCanada was forced to admit they had been using misleading numbers. It’ll create a couple of thousand temporary jobs as the pipeline is built, and then no more after that. That’s the point of having a pipeline. It doesn’t take anyone to run it. Meanwhile, the only independent study, done by a labor think tank at Cornell, shows that there will be no net jobs, that it will kill as many as it will create, even in those temporary jobs.

We know where the jobs are. The jobs are when we finally get around to putting solar panels on people’s roofs, to insulating their homes, to doing all the things that our energy conversion will demand when we finally stop just finding the next source of fossil fuel, when we finally take the environment seriously. And that’s why there’s so many people out in the street and why so many of those people were the exact same people who were out in the street for Barack Obama four years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill, during a speech last month in Denver, President Obama was interrupted by protesters calling on him to block the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.


TOM POOR BEAR: Mother Earth. Protect our children and our futures.


TOM POOR BEAR: [inaudible] the pipeline.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Thank you, guys. We’re looking at it right now, all right? No decision has been made. And I know your deep concern about it. So we will address it.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the clip of President Obama in Denver. It seems that, as you were pointing out, Bill, you have taken this—the groups have taken this right to him, which is key because of this issue of the State Department and the well-known sort of tension between Clinton in the State Department and President Obama. But the fact—if you can talk about the email trail that has been released connecting the deputy campaign manager for Hillary Clinton when she was running for president in 2008, Paul Elliott, who was hired as the chief lobbyist for TransCanada, and the fact that this was going to be decided by the State Department?

BILL McKIBBEN: Yes. First of all, that voice interrupting President Obama spoke yesterday at the rally. It’s Tom Poor Bear, the vice chief of the Oglala Lakota Nation. And the indigenous community, of course, has been in the absolute lead on this fight all along, because so much of their land is at stake.

If you go to the State Department and you look at how this process has unfolded, Hillary Clinton’s former deputy campaign manager became the principal lobbyist for TransCanada, not, I’m guessing, because of his deep expertise in pipelines. The emails that Friends of the Earth have recovered under the Freedom of Information Act make it very clear that the State Department officials were cheering him on in his efforts to build this pipeline. Other State Department officials quit and went to work for the company, for TransCanada, as lobbyists. Hillary Clinton’s biggest bundlers from the last campaign, the corporate people who rounded up the most money for her, are now getting big chunks of money from TransCanada for lobbying. The Obama administration just hired a senior campaign adviser a couple of weeks ago who himself had been taking in lots and lots of money from TransCanada for lobbying. They thought they had this thing completely wired. They played by all the rules of Washington—you know, spread money around. They’re probably—you know, the odds may still be in their favor, because the oil industry has more money than God, you know? But we’re narrowing those odds. We’re narrowing them fast.

It’s become completely clear that the only reason for this project is to line the pockets of oil companies. And if we can keep that message out there, if we can keep exposing it, if we can end this bogus idea that it’s somehow about jobs versus the environment, then I think the odds are going to be pretty good that the President will do, if not exactly the right thing, then something that looks at least a little bit like it.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, we want to thank you very much for being with us, co-founder and director of, author of the book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. And Juan, before we go out, I just want to congratulate you. Juan has just returned from his week-long trip across the country. His new book, News for All the People.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And a week of losing my voice afterwards.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s right. News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media is his book. He wrote it with Joe Torres of Free Press, a remarkable book that gives voice to the voiceless all over this country. Congratulations, Juan. It’s hit the New York Times bestseller list this week.

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