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Why I Courted Arrest in Front of the White House

Simply Put, Keystone XL is a Very, Very, Very, Bad Idea

On Thursday (August 25) morning, I was led away from the White House lawn in handcuffs. I was participating in a peaceful protest against Keystone XL, a new pipeline that would bring oil from the Canadian tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The Obama administration will be making a final decision on whether to approve the pipeline in the coming months.

Photo courtesy tarsandsaction Thursday's protest in front of the White House where Emily Kirkland courted arrest. Environmentalists
are opposing the Keystone XL pipeline on grounds that it would pollute US water supplies and
exacerbate climate change.

I’ll put it simply. Keystone XL is very, very, very bad idea. The pipeline will cause spills in rural areas along its route. More importantly, it will allow for further development of the tar sands in northern Canada. (Read Journal editor Jason Mark's in-depth report on the tar sands.)

It is hard to exaggerate the nastiness of the tar sands. These unconventional oil deposits are a mix of sand, clay, water and a dense, viscous, form of petroleum called bitumen (or tar). The sand and oil mixture is removed by house-sized trucks. Often, the excavations take place in pristine boreal forests. It takes two metric tons of sand to produce a barrel of oil, and the separation process pollutes air and water with mercury, arsenic, and other poisons.

Unfortunately, that’s the least of it. The real problem is the carbon emissions. Because tar sands oil is so energy-intensive to extract, the carbon emissions from burning tar sands oil are 20-40 per cent higher than those for conventional oil. (And it’s not like conventional oil is exactly squeaky-clean).

Al Gore explained the tar sands this way: we are a civilization addicted to oil, and at the very end, "junkies find veins in their toes".

Even after it has been separated from the sand, tar sands oil remains viscous. It must be further refined, but refineries in Canada have run out of capacity. The Keystone XL pipeline will allow extraction to continue by bringing tar sands oil to the Gulf Coast for further processing.

In short, Keystone XL means nothing less than environmental catastrophe.

That’s why I choose to risk arrest, along with fifty others, in front of the White House on Thursday. There has been a similar protest every morning since August 20 and there will be one every day through September 3. Almost four hundred people have been arrested so far.

As I took my place on the White House sidewalk, I asked the man next to me if he had ever been arrested before. Not since the Sixties, he said with a smile. He was arrested in 1968 for sitting with a mixed race group at a lunch counter in Mississippi. They were in jail for six days.

A shiver went up my back as the police lieutenant stepped out with his bullhorn. “This is your first warning… This is your second warning…You are all under arrest.”

In the end, we were in jail for only about 45 minutes. The law we broke is intended to regulate how long tourists can stand in front of the White House. We were given citations – one step below a misdemeanor, on the same level as a speeding ticket. That, of course, was not really the point.

Our protest was a symbolic act, one intended to demonstrate the depth of our conviction. I believe in the rule of the law. But sometimes breaking it is the only way to make sure your voice is heard. Civil disobedience is always a last resort, to be used only when the ordinary mechanisms of democratic participation have failed.

We stood together in front of the White House chanting “Yes We Can!” even as the police approached and began to lead people away. I was an Obama supporter from the beginning. Not yet old enough to vote, I went with my high school chemistry teacher to knock on doors before the California primary. Months later, I stood in a crowd of thousands in Denver and cheered Obama’s nomination speech until my throat was hoarse. I played that stupid video on repeat for weeks.

But Obama has disappointed me, as he has disappointed many people who care about the future of this planet. We’ve made phone calls to our representatives, written letters to the White House, signed petitions. So far it hasn’t worked.

Keystone XL represents a last chance for the climate. If we sink money into this project now, it will become even more difficult to wean ourselves off oil in the future. The oil reserves in the Canadian tar sands are second only to the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia. If they are all burned, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere will reach 600 parts per million. (350 ppm is considered the “safe” level by many climate scientists). As James Hansen, the NASA scientist, put it, Keystone XL is “game over” for the climate. (Hansen is risking arrest in front of the White House today.)

Congress has no role in the decision. All Obama has to do is say “no” to the pipeline. In that sense, Keystone XL also represents a last chance for Obama. This is his last chance to demonstrate that he hasn’t completely lost touch with the people who elected him.

I chose to stand up for my beliefs. Will Obama do the same?

Emily Kirkland is an undergraduate at Brown University studying Economics and Latin American Studies. She spent the summer traveling through Peru on an AT&T New Media Fellowship learning about adaptation to climate change.

Emily Kirkland
Emily Kirkland is a senior at Brown University.

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