WASHINGTON -- Waving signs and chanting "Yes we can," scores of protesters were arrested outside the White House Monday as they called on the Obama administration to block approval of TransCanada's Keystone XL oil pipeline.
As of Monday night, 162 people had been arrested, detained and released. Organizers say more than 2,000 volunteers have signed up to participate in the sit-ins in shifts, which began over the weekend and are slated to run through Sep. 3. Dozens more are expected to be arrested Tuesday.
Frustrated by the president’s inability to get comprehensive energy and climate legislation through Congress, climate activists are pressuring Obama to take action on the proposed $7 billion pipeline project by refusing to sign-off on a permit for its construction.
If approved, the Keystone XL pipeline would pump 700,000 barrels of heavy crude per day from Canada's tar sands to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast. For perspective: Obama recently released 30 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve over a 30-day period.
Advocates of the pipeline say its construction will create jobs, while critics cite concerns over greenhouse gas emissions, as well as a history of leaks at an existing TransCanada oil pipeline known as Keystone 1.
The White House has emphasized that the decision to issue the permit rests with the State Department, which is expected to complete its review of the pipeline by the end of the year.
"The State Department is assessing the project on behalf of the federal government," said White House spokesman Clark Stevens. "That process is ongoing, including receiving important input from the public and stakeholders."
But author and environmentalist Bill McKibben said activists are holding Obama -- not Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- accountable.
McKibben said protesters "spent a lot of time talking about how one of the last times many of us had been sleeping on the floor was when we'd been out campaigning for Obama and how much we hoped that he would do something to remind us why we were so enthusiastic." McKibben spent two nights in jail after being arrested for civil disobedience on Saturday. "This time [Obama] has a clear shot to do it; we'll see."
The jail time came as a surprise to McKibben and others who expected to be fined $100, not detained for two nights in a cell.
Another protester released Monday was former Army Lt. Daniel Choi, who was previously detained after protesting the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.
"It's a small price to pay now rather than a larger consequence in the future," Choi told HuffPost. "We're fighting just as we did with 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'"
With Obama on vacation and the media focused on developments in Libya, some fear the demonstrations won't command much national attention. But McKibben insists the message will be heard.
"The people who've carried this fight for three years are indigenous people on both sides of the border who have a huge stake in it because it's on their land, and farmers and ranchers from places like Nebraska," he said. He called some of the protesters "Johnny-come-latelys," adding, "It wasn’t until I sat down and read Jim Hansen’s analysis of how much carbon was in those things that I understood that this was not just a national issue, it's a global issue of the first order."
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