Thousands Circle White House to Protest Keystone XL: Will They Abandon Obama if Pipeline is Approved?

Photo Credit: Shadia Fayne Wood

by Jessica Goad and Stephen Lacey

“Hey, Obama, we don’t want no climate drama.”

That was one of the rallying cries from the estimated 12,000-person crowd protesting outside the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline yesterday afternoon.

After a series of high-energy speeches from James Hansen, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Mark Ruffalo and many others, demonstrators poured onto Pennsylvania Avenue and created a human chain around the White House, chanting, “two, four, six, eight, stop XL, it’s not too late.”

Christine James of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, was one of a dozen protesters interviewed by Climate Progress outside the White House who saw approval of the Keystone pipeline — a 1,700 mile pipeline that would bring environmentally-disastrous crude from Alberta’s tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries — as a major litmus test for President Obama.

“Those of us who helped to get him elected are here to encourage him to live up to the promises that he made us to clean up the environment and switch us over to cleaner sources of energy. By circling the White House, we’re there to catch him if he falls in doing the right thing. And we’re also there to watch him and make sure he does the right thing,” explained James.

Watch some of our footage from the protest:

The Keystone XL pipeline has become a rallying cry for a broad spectrum of environmental interests — climate, land protection, clean water, and environmental justice. Although the Obama Administration has taken important steps on environmental issues such as crafting rules for mercury emissions, establishing aggressive fuel efficiency standards for heavy and light vehicles, and considering EPA regulation of carbon emissions, the Keystone XL pipeline is seen by environmental groups as “a line in the tar sands.”

Unlike setting standards for emissions — an important, but somewhat mundane process — denying approval of the tar sands pipeline is a much more tangible victory in the fight for climate action. For many environmentalists and progressives who care about climate change, the pipeline is a referendum on Obama, who once boldly proclaimed, “let’s be the generation that frees itself from the tyranny of oil.”

After yesterday’s strong turnout, the President certainly has a lot more pressure in his decision. But the bigger question becomes: If Obama decides to approve the pipeline, will his core group of supporters within the environmental community come back to him in 2012?

BusinessWeek took a stab at answering that question this morning, predicting that the Obama campaign will retain that support — no matter how reluctant his supporters are — because Republican candidates offer such an extreme alternative on environmental issues. Still, as the report points out, he may have difficulties raising money through environmental groups:

In 2008, the San Francisco-based Sierra Club, a non-profit environmental group with 1.4 million members, mobilized 5,599 volunteers to knock on doors and make phone calls for Obama, logging a collective 16,125 campaign shifts.

If Obama approves the pipeline “it will be increasingly difficult for our members to stand behind the president,” said Michael Brune, the club’s executive director.

Wendy Abrams, who raised between $50,000 and $100,000 for Obama in 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, said rallying her friends around the president will be tough.

“I probably won’t raise money like I did before because all my friends are going to bark back at me,” she said. “It’s hard to defend his record.”

One respondent to a recent Energy Insiders Poll in National Journal about the pipeline explained that these groups will reluctantly come back to the President: “Environmentalists will not be happy, but they have nowhere else to go, since they scorn Republicans.”

If these musings are all true, what will it take for environmentalism and climate activism to be considered a politically powerful movement that demands respect from elected officials? That depends on whether the movement can flex its political muscle. Certainly, 12,000 people circling the White House is a major show of force.

In an interview last week, the president explained that “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?”

Surely, Obama is also asking “what’s good for my campaign?” And if climate and energy activists are serious about backing up their stance on the tar sands pipeline, that factor could weigh just as heavily on the decision.

— Stephen Lacey is a reporter/blogger with Climate Progress. Jessica Goad is manager of research and outreach for the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress.

24 Responses to Thousands Circle White House to Protest Keystone XL: Will They Abandon Obama if Pipeline is Approved?

  1. WyrdWays says:

    It’s so sad for someone outside the US to see what is, in essence, a decision on whether to consign the world to unrelenting climate change, being made on the basis of Obamaa asking ‘what’s best for my campaign’

    The Keystone XL decision, of course, won’t alter the gross accounting of carbon being spumed into the atmosphere – not right away, at least.

    But the decision is hugely symbolic. After all the warnings of the perils of global warming, after all the destruction now being wrought as a consequence of ignoring them, this is the last chance to shift the tide of the debate.

    If the world sees that it’s OK for the US to exploit the world’s dirtiest energy resource, there will be no moral pressure that can be bought on any other country following similar paths.

    Deeply depressing. Unless.. maybe.. is there a whisper of that ‘vision thing’ around Obama still?

  2. Fire Mountain says:

    Obama is highly dependent on voting blocs that are less inclined to come out and vote if they feel less than enthusiastic – youth and ethnic voters. And let’s face it, his administration has been a buzz kill. Lower turnout is the real danger. And sure, us aging baby boomers will mostly dutifully groan and vote for him again, though also in fewer numbers, and definitely with less financial support. These factors are already in play.

    Obama has to realize that not being a stand-up individual on climate has put thousands of people at his door. Stuffing a pipeline up our rear ends will only widen the enthusiasm gap, and further reduce turnout and donations. The real threat is people sitting home.

  3. fj says:

    Re: “let’s be the generation that frees itself from the tyranny of oil.”

    Considering the transition from a fossil fuel civilization it may be meaningful to reflect on the founding of this country; and, the ideas behind the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.

  4. Joan Savage says:

    I’m under the impression that it is not merely symbolic. The Keystone XL would be like opening a major artery, or perhaps just as aptly, cutting into intestines. Funneling dirty oil from tar sands to refineries on the Texas coast (or Pacific coast) would speed up the movement of huge amounts of dirty oil out into its combustion products in the atmosphere.

  5. Kota says:

    No where to go? They would be wrong if others are like me. I would not vote for a slower death over a fast one. There is a point at which I must hold myself accountable for my actions. I’m not about to vote for someone that allowed the Powder River Basin mining well enough the Keystone. They can go on and murder their kids, wildlife and plants without me. I will not be an assessory this planetary biological massacre.

  6. Sasparilla says:

    A very good writeup, obviously Obama will just postpone his decision till after the election so he doesn’t have to experience the consequences (whichever way he decides, GOP candidates would club him if he decided to cancel it) – but at least it certainly looks like the XL expansion will be delayed for another year or so (any delay is good).

    As for the threat of money not coming in from grassroots greenies, I think the admin doesn’t really care – they’ve raised so much money from high amount donors (corporations anyone?) they already have more money than all the GOP candidates combined.

  7. Sasparilla says:

    You’re quite right, its more than symbolic since it would increase the tar sands capacity to the US significantly (we’ve already got two main arteries from Canada open and in operation), but I think WyrdWays meant symbolic in a good big change way (not that its only symbolic).

    Up to now, the Obama administration has made decision after decision against climate change action and clean environmental goals (in favor of industry) and there hasn’t been much push back (since most of the green constituency was just stunned at the decisions) – but now we finally have very visible citizen demonstrations to stop on the XL (no farther on tar sands exploitation).

    The president may have approved two previous tar sands pipelines (Keystone 1 & Alberta Clipper in 2009) but he’s finally being called on it with the XL expansion.

  8. Elizabeth Barger says:

    He needs his base’s enthusiasm. If he ok’s the pipeline, it will be a real drain.

    Hey Mr. President
    We are your boss.
    To OK the keystone
    is a great big loss!

    Just sayin’…

  9. Joan Savage says:

    Obama’s approach to conflict works in a pragmatic framework of what is negotiable now, and what he thinks can be usefully postponed.

    It is not at all clear that Obama can see that nature doesn’t have any need to negotiate with us, or postpone its dynamic responses to forcing.

    Nature is the winter that drove Napoleon’s army out of Russia, more effectively than a battle. Nature is the hurricane that drove British troops away from Washington, DC in the War of 1812. It can beat any other force.

    Calling Obama’s eventual decision symbolic reminds me of the anguish of those who waited for Lincoln to emancipate slaves, a decision both symbolic and pragmatic.

  10. Brooks Bridges says:

    “If the world sees that it’s OK for the US to exploit the world’s dirtiest energy resource, there will be no moral pressure that can be bought on any other country following similar paths.”

    An excellent point also made by one of the speakers at the protest.

    I think it is a big mistake to downgrade the ultimate impact of saying NO to this pipeline and gaining significant moral high ground. In the world’s eyes, we suck on climate change. A No would give heart to people around the world as well as in the states.

    Saying a cowardly yes, I’m afraid, would have an even bigger impact on world wide efforts.

    I’m getting tired of all the negative “I WON’T vote for Obama if he says yes”. That’s a vote FOR the greater of evils. We need enthusiasm for positive efforts, not “I’m going to take my ball and bat and go home”.

    For instance: Suggestions for further actions to make it blindingly obvious to him there are huge numbers of people who care about climate change actions in general and the XL pipeline in particular. This obviously will affect congressional and senatorial election efforts as well.

    Think about it: Where would the XL pipeline decision be without Bill McKibben’s POSITIVE efforts? And why is it a big deal that 12,000 showed up? Why not 500,000?

  11. ZS says:

    Yep, a delay is looking increasingly likely, especially in light of the news that the Dept. of State’s Inspector General is going to be opening an investigation into the corrupt review process.

    A delay would be better than the alternative of an approval, but there’s also the possibility that it could deflate the intense energy and collaboration that’s built up surrounding this issue. I think we need to make clear that we need a rejection of the permit before the election, not merely a delay. The Dept. of State’s IG inquiry could solidify the fact that the review was highly flawed at best and corrupt at worst. But even absent that corrupt review, Obama has enough information about the environmental risks to deny the pipeline NOW.

  12. Jeff Huggins says:

    One Stance, and Also A Comment From MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell

    I, for one, will NOT vote for President Obama again if he approves Keystone XL. Period.

    I will also be much less interested in supporting the main environmental organizations if they don’t take strong stands on the same question. To me, the climate movement leaders’ own credibility will diminish if they indicate (through their actions and words) that they’ll support President Obama no matter what he does, even as the years go by.

    I saw an interview of MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell the other night. In essence, he said this (and very clearly): If you want to influence a political party regarding a particular issue (e.g., climate change), “you must, you must” show that you’re capable of NOT voting for them. In essence, O’Donnell said that, in his experience as a Democrat in government, Democrats routinely ignore, or disregard, the stances of their core progressive constituents, or those on the so-called “left”, because the assumption is that such people have nowhere else to go, when it comes to voting.

    A very good way to make sure that your stance and “demand” will be ignored, is to say or imply that you’ll vote for a party or politician no matter what he does.

    Enough of that. No more for me. Obama made clear promises last time, and he hasn’t even tried very hard to deliver on them. Now, regarding Keystone XL, the decision is his. If he approves Keystone XL, I won’t be voting for him again. In my view, that is the necessary and wise stance, if we want to actually get anywhere.

    And if President Obama approves Keystone XL, and most members of most environmental organizations vote for him anyhow, as “the lesser of two evils”, and if he thus gets reelected and we essentially “train” our leaders that they don’t really need to take us seriously, how should I respond if someone asks me, mid-way through Obama’s next term, to demonstrate at the White House and risk arrest in order to try to get him to make some future decision that he should be willing to make without such demonstrations? “You want ME to demonstrate because the person YOU weren’t willing to NOT vote for is still making bad judgments and still not fulfilling the promises he made long ago? You want ME to risk arrest even though YOU weren’t even willing to state clearly to President Obama that you wouldn’t vote for him if he approved Keystone XL?”

    Thus, we have to decide whether we’re serious.

    In any case, if President Obama approves Keystone XL, I won’t be voting for him this next time around. And I hope that many people take Lawrence O’Donnell’s observation seriously: If you want to influence a politician or political party on a specific issue, “you must, you must” show that you’re capable of NOT voting for them. Period.

    Be Well,


  13. Anne says:

    Obama will delay the decision and for cover he will say, truthfully, that the Congress has asked for an investigation and the IG will do just that. So the environmental community will need another litmus test for the election, or, everyone will just have to be OK with the holding pattern until late 2012. Meanwhile, much good work can be done behind the scenes through diplomacy with Canada, conversations with the effected state governors, more grassroots work with citizens, and continued pressure on White House staff. I have not yet seen an alternative being offered up — something will have to happen in its place to appease the interested parties. There will be time to think on that.

  14. MarkfromLexington says:


  15. MarkfromLexington says:

    I’m with Lawrence O’Donnell. He is right on the money.

  16. Ziyu says:

    We have won a small victory today. The conflict of interest allegations are being reviewed.

  17. Wes Rolley says:

    The big deal is that only 12,000 showed up. This is not the civil rights movement. It is not the scale of the anti-Vietnam War movement. And those took years to affect change.

    If the Democratic Party knows that it can always count on the environmental vote, then they are complicit in the damage that is being caused. One solution is to pick just one Green running for Congress and make sure that they have the funding to get elected. Maybe that will get attention.

    I know one long time environmental advocate who would love to start an Environmental PAC. That might work, but only if it ended up giving significant funding a few key candidates.

  18. Lourdes says:

    I think America is at an energy crossroads. So I created a petition asking the Obama Administration to: Promote America’s transition to renewable sources of energy. If this petition gets at least 25,000 signatures by November 21, 2011, the White House will review it and respond. I am hoping it gets much more than that.

    It takes about 3 minutes to read and sign this petition. Go to this website:

    If you support the idea, please join me in advocating for cleaner sources of energy. Tell your friends, family and colleagues to join us in support of renewable energy for America. Together we can move mountains and harness the sun’s energy too!

  19. Edith Wiethorn says:

    Yes – and “You must!” was the advice of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, whose climate speeches were lauded here recently.

  20. Tom Lenz says:

    I’m with you Jeff. This is a point also made by none other than Al Gore himself. He knows how politicians operate.

  21. Brooks Bridges says:

    So Jeff Huggins is voting FOR the Greater of Evils (if Obama caves).

    The math is simple: One vote less for the lesser of evils When There Is No Other Choice is exactly the same as one vote more for the greater of evils.

    I can’t do that to my grandkids.

  22. Tom Lenz says:

    A vote for a lesser evil is still a vote for evil.

  23. Brooks Bridges says:

    I created an account and signed. I did note another, more general energy petition at the site so signed it too. You might want to check it out – yours is, in a sense, competing.