Thousands of protesters marched through downtown St. Paul to the State Capitol on Saturday, calling for the cancellation of the proposed Sandpiper oil pipeline that would travel near some of the state's pristine waters.

Though an independent tally was unavailable for the Tar Sands Resistance Rally, organizers estimated that 5,000 anti-pipeline and climate change activists took part in the colorful and peaceful march, marked by dozens of national speakers and live music and dance. Police reported no arrests.

Activists such as founder Bill McKibben, Sierra Club President Aaron Mair, and Ojibwe "water walker" Sharon Day — some of whom led the long-running battle against the controversial giant Keystone pipeline — say they hope to turn Minnesota's pipeline into the next national organizing symbol against tar sands and climate change.

"The fossil fuel industry has been winning for 200 years, but their winning streak is over," McKibben said Saturday, calling Minnesota "ground zero" in the climate fight.

The rally took place one day after Minnesota regulators conditionally endorsed the $2.6 billion pipeline, which would carry North Dakota crude oil from the Bakken to Superior, Wis., where pipeline owner Enbridge Energy operates an oil terminal tied to other pipelines supplying refineries in the East and Midwest. Enbridge, a Calgary-based company that operates the world's longest petroleum pipeline network, owns six pipelines that cross Minnesota, where its operations date to the 1950s.

Despite the drop in oil prices, Enbridge has said it is moving ahead with $44 billion in investments, including two other crude oil pipeline projects in Minnesota. Those projects — a line expansion and a line replacement — carry Canadian oil across Minnesota to Superior, including the heavy crude extracted from Alberta's tar sands.

In one project, scheduled to be completed this summer, Enbridge is adding pumping stations to its Alberta Clipper, or Line 67, pipeline, boosting its carrying capacity by 40 percent to 800,000 barrels per day. Climate activists, including, unsuccessfully fought the project.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said many frame pipelines as a safer alternative to oil-carrying trains but that it shouldn't be a choice between the two.

"Pipelines leak and explode and so do trains. The choice is: Are we going to continue our dependence on oil or get serious about conserving?" said Hornstein, who called the debate a symptom of "America's gluttonous appetite for oil. The science is in, the data is screaming at us. And what goes on inside here," he said pointing to the Capitol, "is unfortunately not helping."

Demonstrators at Saturday's march varied in age and demographics and included protesters from out of state. Megabuses brought in several hundred from Wisconsin to participate, while the Madison chapter of drove five hours to stand in solidarity with locals.

Tribal members led the march, and St. Paul Mexica dancers performed in the street between stops.

Protesters carried makeshift signs and banners and chanted, "We don't want your tar sands oil, we won't let you kill our soil," and "Pipelines spill, tar sands kill." A few protesters covered themselves in black paint for a tarry effect.

Kristina Femal, 24, of Stevens Point, Wis., turned heads with a sign saying, "Benzene Killed My Mom." Femal's mother died of leukemia, a diagnosis that was traced to her time working in a factory that built circuit boards and exposed employees to benzene — a natural part of crude oil.

"This is what [benzene] literally does. ... It's a known carcinogen. It's known to be deadly and it's still being used," Femal said. "If you want to make a change, you have to make people feel something."

Nearly 20 speakers welcomed the demonstrators once they reached the Capitol and stretched out on the green. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., praised the group for its grass-roots organizing.

"Politicians see the light when they feel the heat, and nothing brings more heat than when people hit the street and demand action," he said. "[Oil companies] don't really care what the consequences are as long as it makes them some money."

Minneapolis Community and Technical College biology instructor Cathy Geist encouraged her environmental science students to come out to the rally.

"The more I learn the more I see we cannot wait to take action on this issue," she said. "To think we can keep using fossil fuels as we are now is delusional."

Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648

Beatrice Dupuy • 612-673-1707