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The Keystone Pipeline Revolt: Why Mass Arrests are Just the Beginning

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So – a tough weekend, but no need for sympathy. (If you have some, spare it for those neighborhoods whose citizens are routinely hauled away to jail for no good reason.) Instead, there's a need to understand. Why were 65 middle-class Americans willing to spend that weekend behind bars? And why were 1,200 others willing to follow us into the paddy wagon over the last week of August and the first of September? This was the largest civil disobedience in this country since at least the nuclear-test protests of the 1980s, and one of the most sustained since the heyday of the civil rights movement, and virtually none of the arrestees were the usual suspects. Plenty of college students showed up, but we'd tried hardest to recruit their elders, arguing that in the fight against global warming it was time for the generation that actually caused the crisis to do a bit of the work. The biggest group arrested, in fact, were born in the Truman and FDR years; on the last day, I watched the police haul away an 86-year-old man with a sign around his neck that said "World War II Vet, Handle With Care." He'd been born in the Harding administration.

We were there for a simple reason: because it was time. After two decades of scientists gravely explaining to politicians that global warming is by far the biggest crisis our planet has ever faced, and politicians nodding politely (or, in the case of the Tea Party, shaking their heads in disbelief), it was time to actually do something about it that went beyond reading books, attending lectures, lobbying congressmen or writing letters to the editor. With Texas on fire and Vermont drowning under record rainfall, it wasn't just our bodies on the line.

The Keystone XL pipeline wraps up every kind of environmental devastation in one 1,700-mile-long disaster. At its source, in the tar sands of Alberta, the mining of this oil-rich bitumen has already destroyed vast swaths of boreal forest and native land – think mountaintop removal, but without the mountain. The biggest machines on earth scrape away the woods and dig down to the oily sand beneath – so far they've only got three percent of the oil, but they've already moved more soil than the Great Wall of China, the Suez Canal, the Aswan Dam and the Pyramid of Cheops combined. The new pipeline – the biggest hose into this reservoir – will increase the rate of extraction, and it will carry that oily sand over some of the most sensitive land on the continent, including the Ogallala aquifer, source of freshwater for the plains. A much smaller precursor pipeline spilled 14 times in the past year.

Even if the oil manages to get safely to the refineries in Texas, it will take a series of local problems and turn them into a planetary one. Because those tar sands are the second-biggest pool of carbon on earth, after the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. Burning up Saudi Arabia is the biggest reason the Earth's temperature has already risen one degree from pre-industrial levels, that epic flood and drought have become ubiquitous, and that the Arctic is melting away. Since we didn't know about climate change when we started in on Saudi Arabia, you can't really blame anyone. But if we do it a second time in Canada, we deserve what we get.

If you do the calculations, explains James Hansen – the planet's most important climate scientist, who was arrested at the White House about halfway through the two weeks of protest – opening up the tar sands to heavy exploitation would mean "it's essentially game over" for the climate. Which is a sentence worth reading twice. Right now, the atmosphere holds 392 parts per million CO2, already dangerously above the 350 ppm scientists say is the maximum safe level. If you could somehow burn all the tar sands at once, which thank heaven you can't, the atmospheric concentration would rise another 150 parts per million.

The arguments for going ahead and doing it anyway are predictable, and predictably weak. The Chamber of Commerce claims the pipeline will be a jobs bonanza, but a State Department analysis predicts 6,000 jobs at best, almost all of them temporary, and at the price of further delaying the transition to a truly jobs-rich economy founded on clean energy. Because the pipeline runs to the Gulf of Mexico, the oil won't enhance energy security – much of it is apparently destined for overseas. And it's likely to raise, not lower, the price of gasoline, by opening up more markets for Canadian oil.

All of which means it's going to be one interesting political battle. Because the pipeline crosses an international border, it requires a presidential "certificate of national interest." In other words, Barack Obama alone will decide, without Congress or anyone else in the way. That means the sides have lined up with all the firepower they can muster. And they are different kinds of firepower. The heavy artillery backing Keystone includes the Chamber of Commerce, the Koch brothers and The Wall Street Journal. They're lobbying hard: TransCanada Corp., which will build the pipeline, spent $160,000 lobbying Congress in 2008, $720,000 last year and $790,000 in the first half of this year. They've wired things the traditional Washington way, hiring Hillary Clinton's former deputy campaign manager as their chief lobbyist. Not, perhaps, because of his expertise on pipelines.

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