Yesterday, I reported in my column, "President Obama Promises a Big Push on Climate Change," that environmental activists will gather in DC for the Forward on Climate Rally on February 17th. The protest organizers, the Sierra Club and 350.org, are hoping that the "largest climate rally in history" will persuade President Obama not to approve the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. That pipeline would transport to Gulf Coast refineries nearly a million barrels per day of petroleum derived from Canada's oilsands.
The board of directors of the Sierra Club consider the pipeline so threatening to the globe's climate that it has for the first time ever authorized members to participate in peaceful civil disobedience:
“For civil disobedience to be justified, something must be so wrong that it compels the strongest defensible protest,” said Michael Brune, Sierra Club Executive Director. “We are watching a global crisis unfold before our eyes, and to stand aside and let it happen -- even though we know how to stop it -- would be unconscionable."
As sincere as the Sierra Club folks are, civil disobedience in planned DC demonstrations is not exactly like civil rights activists facing Bull Connor in Birmingham in 1963. The group 350.org orchestrated an earlier protest against the pipeline and offered this helpful advice in a memo to demonstrators:
There are no guarantees, but similar actions in DC have been treated very consistently by authorities. Typically, anyone arrested in civil disobedience such as this get either a citation (like a traffic ticket), or a simple misdemeanor charge (such as Trespass, or Failure to Disperse, or Incommoding). Participants should plan to spend a night in jail. IF anything changes, and police begin to release participants earlier, we will inform you at the training. We’re anticipating that arrestees will have the option to post-and-forfeit [typically a $100 fee] when they appear before a judge the next day. People who choose to not pay this fine may remain in custody longer, have to return for a future court date, or face additional charges. Currently, the charge we’re anticipating is Failure to Obey a Police Officer (see FAQ below), which is equivalent to a traffic ticket and carries no jail time.
The Sierra Club was evidently moved to act because Nebraska Gov. David Heineman approved yesterday the building of the pipeline through his state based on the finding by his Department of Environmental Quality that the project would have "minimal impact" on the environment. Althought the State Department has already found the project environmentally safe, the president delayed approval until after the 2012 election and asked for another review which will likely be issued in March.
In his second inaugural speech, the president made it clear that addressing climate change is going to be a central goal of his second term. If he rules that the pipeline is not in "the national interest," get ready for some truly interesting times when it comes to energy and climate policy.
For background see my column, "Don't Be Afraid of the Keystone XL Pipeline."