News & Politics

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

The Keystone XL pipeline has become a rallying cry for a broad spectrum of environmental interests — climate, land protection, clean water, and environmental justice.

 “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 Plains, 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 in a display of activism not seen since the 1970′s 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 for Climate Progress, where he writes on clean energy policy, technologies, and finance. Before joining CP, he was an editor/producer with RenewableEnergyWorld.com. He received his B.A. in journalism from Franklin Pierce University. Jessica Goad is manager of research and outreach for the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress.