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Keystone opponents vow civil disobedience, vigils starting Monday

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FILE: July 11, 2013: Protesters rally about the Keystone XL oil pipeline, in Washington, D.C.REUTERS

Environmentalists and other opponents of the Keystone XL Pipeline are ramping up their opposition to the project following the release Friday of a  largely favorable State Department report -- vowing to hold vigils, jump into the November elections and even perform acts of civil disobedience.  

The report raising no major environmental concerns bolster the hopes of the oil industry, some union groups, congressional Republicans and others that President Obama will soon approve the $7 billion project, after a roughly five year wait.

They say the Canada-to-Texas pipeline will create tens of thousands of jobs and make the United States less dependent on foreign oil.

However, within hours of the release of the report, opponents were pressing forward with a lawsuit to challenge the project, public protests and an effort to inject the issue into this fall’s elections.

Among the critics is a coalition of landowners and environmentalists that says there is still cause for denying a federal permit.

And farmers and ranchers in Nebraska are planning to run for seats on a state board that regulates power stations that are needed along the project’s route.

Meanwhile, national activists say they have recruited more than 75,000 volunteers willing to participate in civil disobedience, should Obama approve the project.

"There's no question, if the president approves this permit, that there will be civil disobedience," said Jane Kleeb, executive director of the group Bold Nebraska, which has helped organize opposition in the state. "I think you'll see some landowners driving really slow on their county roads to block the (pipeline) trucks."

The 1,179-mile pipeline, if approved, would carry oil from tar sands in western Canada to a hub in Nebraska, then connect with existing pipelines to carry more than 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day to refineries in Texas.

The project now goes to a 30-day comment period and a review by Secretary of State John Kerry and other agencies. Obama has 90 days to make the decision on the pipeline, but the White House on Friday disputed the notion that the report is headed to a fast approval. Oil began flowing last week through an Oklahoma-to-Texas section already approved by Obama.

The president is also getting increased pressure from some congressional Democrats.

“Today's Environmental Impact Statement confirms what Alaskans already know -- there are ways to safely and responsibly diversify our domestic energy supply,” Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said Friday. “Move this project forward.”

He was joined by Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu in calling on Obama to approve the project.

“This new study underscores what has been said all along about Keystone XL Pipeline: It’s time to build,” Landrieu said.

Begich and Landrieu are in tough, 2014 re-election efforts in conservative-leaning, energy-producing states.

The Keystone XL is "not about energy versus the environment. It's about where Americans want to get their oil," said Russ Girling, CEO of pipeline developer TransCanada.

Opponents were planning to host vigils throughout the nation Monday and "pipeline meet-ups" throughout February to encourage people to raise the issue with candidates in the 2014 election. They also were waiting for a Nebraska judge to rule on a lawsuit challenging a state law that allowed the project to proceed. A ruling is expected by late March, and whatever the outcome an appeal to the Nebraska Supreme Court is a near certainty.

Kleeb said 115 landowners in Nebraska still refuse to sign agreements with pipeline developer TransCanada and would engage in nonviolent civil disobedience if the company tries to lay pipe through their land. She said her group also plans to run candidates for the Nebraska Public Power District, a state board that approves and regulates power projects.

The district plans to construct a 115,000-volt transmission line to support a pumping station that would be used for the Keystone XL. District officials have said they can't discriminate against customers, but Kleeb said candidates will challenge the pipeline while promoting more alternative energies in Nebraska.

Many opponents have turned their hopes to Nebraska, where a group of farmers and ranchers have joined forces with national environmental groups to block the pipeline.

"They have some lawsuits in the works, and they're pretty passionate people," said Paul Seamans, of Draper, S.D., who farms and ranches on land where the pipeline would cross.

Opponents insist that the new pipeline route -- redrawn after state officials objected to the first path -- still crosses the Nebraska Sandhills, an ecologically fragile expanse of grass-covered sand dunes in the northern part of the state. The pipeline was routed around an area designated as the Sandhills by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, but activists say the map doesn't reflect the true conditions in the area.

Republican supporters said the report should compel Obama to swiftly green-light the project.

"This report from the Obama administration once again confirms that there is no reason for the White House to continue stalling construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement. "So, Mr. President, no more stalling -- no more excuses." 

Critics also say the pipeline would carry "dirty oil" that contributes to global warming. They also worry about a spill.

The State Department report effectively said Canadian tar sands are likely to be developed regardless of U.S. action on the pipeline. An official added that other options to get the oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries -- including rail, trucks and barges -- would be worse for climate change.

State Department approval is needed because the pipeline crosses a U.S. border. The Environmental Protection Agency and other departments will have 90 days to comment before State makes a recommendation to Obama on whether the project is in the national interest. A final decision by the government is not expected before summer.

The new report comes only days after Obama's State of the Union address, in which he reiterated his support for an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy that embraces a wide range of sources, from oil and natural gas to renewables such as wind and solar power.

Obama blocked the Keystone XL pipeline in January 2012, saying he did not have enough time for a fair review before a looming deadline forced on him by congressional Republicans. That delayed the choice for him until after his re-election.

Obama also said in a New York Times interview last year that there was "no evidence" the pipeline would be a "big jobs generator," claiming it might create 2,000 jobs in the construction phase and far fewer permanent jobs.

U.S. and Canadian accident investigators warned last week about the dangers of oil trains that transport crude oil from North Dakota and other states to refineries in the U.S. and Canada. The officials urged new safety rules, cautioning that a "major loss of life" could result from an accident involving the increasing use of trains to transport large amounts of crude oil.

Several high-profile accidents involving crude oil shipments -- including a fiery explosion in North Dakota and an explosion that killed 47 people in Canada last year -- have raised alarms. Keystone XL would travel through Montana and South Dakota before reaching Nebraska. An existing spur runs through Kansas and Oklahoma to Texas.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.