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Pipeline protesters, including a delegation from Minnesota, filled the National Mall.

Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

Groups opposing nuclear power, coal production and fracking for natural gas also attended Sunday’s rally.

Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

Missy Crow, left, joins protesters calling for the rejection of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, as well as to limit carbon pollution.

Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

Keystone pipeline ruling sure to cause rift

  • Article by: JOHN M. BRODER, CLIFFORD KRAUSS and IAN AUSTEN
  • New York Times
  • February 17, 2013 - 9:52 PM

 

WASHINGTON - President Obama faces a knotty decision on whether to approve the much-delayed Keystone oil pipeline: a choice between alienating environmental advocates who overwhelmingly supported his candidacy or causing a deep and perhaps lasting rift with Canada.

Canada, the United States' most important trading partner and a close ally on Iran and Afghanistan, is counting on the pipeline to propel growth in its oil patch, a vital engine for its economy. Its leaders have made it clear that a U.S. rejection would be viewed as an unneighborly act and could bring retaliation.

Secretary of State John Kerry's first meeting with a foreign leader was with Canada's foreign minister, John Baird, on Feb. 8. They discussed the Keystone project, among other subjects, and Kerry promised a fair, transparent and prompt decision. He did not indicate what recommendation he would make to the president.

But this is also a decisive moment for the U.S. environmental movement, which backed Obama strongly in the last two elections. For groups such as the Sierra Club, permitting a pipeline carrying more than 700,000 barrels a day of Canadian crude into the country would be viewed as a betrayal and as a contradiction of the president's promises in his second inaugural and State of the Union addresses to make controlling climate change a top priority for his second term.

On Sunday, thousands of protesters rallied near the Washington Monument to protest the pipeline and call for firmer steps to fight emissions of climate-changing gases. Groups opposing nuclear power, coal production and fracking for natural gas were prominent; separate groups of Baptists and Catholics, as well as an interfaith coalition, joined the throng.

A delegation of about 70 Minnesotans rode what they called the "Earth Train" to Washington to join the protest. The group included author Louise Erdrich, humorist Kevin Kling and state Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, chairman of the state House Transportation Committee.

One speaker, the Rev. Lennox Yearwood, compared the rally to Martin Luther King's 1963 March on Washington for civil rights, but, he said, "while they were fighting for equality, we are fighting for existence." In front of the stage was a mockup of a pipeline, looking a bit like the dragon in a Chinese New Year parade, with the motto, "separate oil and state."

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, predicted that Obama would veto the $7 billion project because of the adverse effects development of the Canadian oil sands would have on the global climate.

"It's rare that a president has such a singular voice on such a major policy decision," Brune said. "Whatever damage approving the pipeline would do to the environmental movement pales in comparison to the damage it could do to his own legacy."

Protesters at White House

Brune was one of about four dozen pipeline protesters arrested at the White House on Wednesday during an act of civil disobedience that was a first for the 120-year-old Sierra Club.

Obama has been able so far to balance his promises to promote both energy independence and environmental protection, by allowing more oil and gas drilling on public lands and offshore while also pushing auto companies to make their vehicles more efficient. But the Keystone decision, which is technically a State Department prerogative but will be decided by the president, defies easy compromise.

"This is a tricky political challenge for the president," said Michael A. Levi, an energy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The reality is everyone has defined the stakes on Keystone in such absolute terms that it is borderline impossible to see a compromise that will satisfy all the players."

The proposed northern extension of the nearly 2,000-mile Keystone XL pipeline would connect Canada's oil sands to refineries around Houston and the Gulf of Mexico, replacing Venezuelan heavy crude with similar Canadian grades.

Proponents say its approval would be an important step toward reducing reliance on the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries for energy. Opponents say that the expansion of oil production in shale fields across the country has already reduced the need for imports.

Environmentalists have singled out the pipeline because it would carry oil derived from tar sands, in a process that is dirtier than other forms of oil production and that releases more carbon dioxide.

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