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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bill McKibben on Protesting Pipeline Expansion

Air Date: Week of

The Keystone XL pipeline expansion would pipe carbon-rich crude from Alberta all the way to Texas. Environmentalists are protesting the proposal in record numbers. Author, activist and professor Bill McKibben is leading the charge all the way to the White House. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that the pipeline project is a horror that will generate an enormous amount of carbon pollution.


GELLERMAN: In recent weeks more than 12 hundred protesters have been arrested in front of the White House. They were demonstrating against a proposed 17 hundred-mile pipeline that would carry thick, gooey oil from the tar sands of Alberta Canada to refineries along the Gulf Coast of Mexico.

Along the way, the seven billion dollar pipeline called Keystone XL would pass through two Canadian provinces, six U.S. states and over the nation’s largest aquifer. Leading the protests in front of the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline was Bill McKibben. The author and activist is with tarsandsaction.org. He joins us from KQED in San Francisco. Welcome to Living on Earth, Bill.

(Photo: by Milan Ilnyckyj, Tar Sands Action Network)

MCKIBBEN: Well, Bruce as always, good to be with you guys.

GELLERMAN: Well, we’ve done a lot of stories about the existing Keystone pipeline and the proposed XL extension, but can you tell us exactly why you’re against this project?

MCKIBBEN: Yeah. I think, in a sense, it’s easier to say why it is that our protest against it turned into the biggest display of civil disobedience in 30 years in this country. And, you know, the reasons are two: One, this project is a horror. Not only is it a horror in Alberta where they mine this stuff, and not only is it a grave danger to be putting a pipeline across the Ogallala Aquifer to get it to Texas, but it’s also a pipeline that runs into the second largest pool of carbon on earth.

If we start burning this stuff in a big way, it’s essentially game over for the climate. So, that’s one reason that there has been this, you know, willingness of 1,250 people to march themselves off to jail.

The other reason is: for once, we have a chance of prevailing, because Barack Obama can stop this stupid thing, all he has to do is say, ‘I’m not gonna sign the presidential certificate of national interest.” - that’s what they call it - that would be necessary to build this thing across national borders.

GELLERMAN: Well, the State Department is involved in this because it crosses the border, and they came out last month with an Environmental Impact Report that says, you know, ‘no harmful effects,’ basically.

MCKIBBEN: The State Department Environmental Impact Report - I mean, I’m a college professor, once in awhile anyway, and I’ve read enough blue books to know when people are studiously avoiding the issue. The government’s chief climate scientist - James Hansen at NASA - had to go get arrested in front of the White House to make himself heard.

The calculations that his NASA team put together are astonishing. They showed if you could light all the tar sands on fire, you would raise the carbon concentration in the atmosphere from its current 390 parts per million to somewhere above 500 parts per million.

GELLERMAN: But Bill, there’s a lot of oil, as you say, in the ground up there - the second largest proven oil reserve in the world, and this country needs energy and jobs.

MCKIBBEN: What this country needs is finally to come to grips with the idea that we better make the transition off fossil fuel and onto something else. And, they need to keep that oil in the ground. And, if we do, then we will actually create a lot of jobs as we finally make the transition, instead of delaying it for another generation.

The protests against the Keystone Pipeline Expansion were the largest acts of civil disobedience since the Vietnam protests. (Photo: Josh Lopez, Tar Sands Action 2011)

GELLERMAN: Any indication that the White House has actually heard the protestors.

MCKIBBEN: Well, that’s an interesting question. The press secretary, the only thing he said is, ‘I haven’t discussed it with the president.’ But, I’m pretty sure they’ve heard. I don’t know whether he’s heard enough yet, which is why we’re continuing- tarsandsaction.org - will be fighting on all fall because the president said he’ll make his decision by Christmas. Many of us were arrested wearing our Obama ’08 buttons.

GELLERMAN: Well, you were willing to go to jail - are you willing to sit out the next election if the president does sign the certificate and find that this is in the national interest?

MCKIBBEN: I imagine that most hardcore environmentalists will probably end up voting for the president because it’s clear that, you know, Rick Perry or whoever would be, you know, eager to build as many pipelines as he possibly could. But there’s a big difference between voting for someone and supporting them.

And if the president … you know, to get reelected, to have that kind of enthusiasm that marked his last campaign, he’s going to need to do the right thing here. As one of my young colleagues said, ‘it’s hard to knock on doors when you’re in handcuffs.’ And, I’ve gotta tell you, I am so proud of the people who showed up. This was not the usual suspects.

We asked people when they signed up who was president when they were born, and the biggest cohort of people who were arrested came from the Truman and FDR Administrations. We are…the last day, the oldest person arrested was an 86-year-old man with a sign around his neck that said ‘World War II vet. Handle with care.’ He was 86 years old, born in the Harding Administration.

GELLERMAN: In your heart of hearts, you think you can stop this pipeline from going in?

MCKIBBEN: Uh, look, the odds were very … were slim to none two weeks ago. The odds are probably still against us, but they are improving daily and hourly. What had been a regional issue is a national and international one. Word is out: global warming, you know, it’s not like we’re facing some future threat.

GELLERMAN: Author, environmental activist and professor, Bill McKibben. He’s head of Tar Sands Action. Bill, thank you so very much.

MCKIBBEN: Thank you very much. Take care, Bruce.



Learn more about the on-going protests

See more pictures of the demonstration


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