Keystone XL

Civil Disobedience Theater and the Keystone Pipeline Combatants


A bunch of prominent environmental lobbyists stage-managed themselves into getting arrested yesterday in front of the White House as a protest against the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. As Friends of the Earth president Erich Pica bragged on his blog:

Yesterday, I was arrested for the first time in my life!

My hands were cuffed, alongside so many others, at the White House fence, as I joined 47 environmental and progressive leaders—including Bill McKibben of, Mike Brune of the Sierra Club, NASA climatologist Dr. James Hansen, Daryl Hannah, and civil rights leader Julian Bond—in sending a strong message to the Obama administration: Do not approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

Did the Keystone combatants spend the night in jail banging tin cups against the bars singing "Big Yellow Taxi" [YouTube] together? Nope.

The hard hand of state power was withheld and the aftermath all pretty much unfolded as this helpful pre-protest memo outlined:

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 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.

As the Washington Post reports:

The protesters were released Wednesday afternoon after each paid a $100 fine.

The White House protest is just the appetizer for what the environmental lobbyists hope will be a big crowd on the Mall in DC this coming Sunday at the Forward on Climate Rally.

Presidential approval (or disapproval) of the construction the pipeline that would transport about 1 million barrels of crude oil from Canada's oilsands was bravely put off until after the November elections. The still pending decision will probably not to be made before June of this year.

As my dispatches from my American Petroleum Institute paid junket to Alberta, "The Man-Made Miracle of Oil from Sand," and "Conflict Oil or Canadian Oil?, show, my sensibilities are somewhat different from those of the protesters when it comes to oilsands crude:

Fort McMurray, Alberta—Standing on the edge of the immense and spectacular pit of an oil sands mine for the first time last week, I was surprised by a sense of exhilaration. Later, seven stories up, equipped with earplugs, and clad in bright blue overalls, I marveled at the cascades of black bitumen froth bubbling over the sides of a separation cell like a giant witch's cauldron. The scale of the enterprise and the sheer ingenuity involved in wresting value and sustenance from the hands of a stingy Mother Nature provoked in me a feeling close to glory.

Yet as I stood at the edge of the mine, I understood that lots of people viewing the same sight would be horrified by it and outraged by my enthusiasm for it. They would, instead, see the pit as a deep wound in the earth, amounting almost to a desecration.

Can I explain myself to those who see mining oil sands as a moral offense? I plead humanism. Modern capitalism and the technology it engenders has lifted a significant proportion of humanity out of our natural state of abject poverty for the first time in history. Even now, depending on the cycles of nature to renew supplies of fuel (in the form of wood and manure) means poverty, disease, and early death for millions.

I, too, am moved by the beauty of nature and awed by its intricate complexities. I have experienced the Zen of the sheer physicality of hiking or snorkeling over the psychedelic reefs of the Maldives. But human technology can be awesomely beautiful as well. So it was for me at the oil sands in Alberta.

For more background, see my column, "Don't Be Afraid of the Keystone Pipeline."