In Washington Friday, hundreds of people from all walks of life packed a State Department hearing at the massive Ronald Reagan office building, ready for one last-ditch effort to fend off the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
They were a diverse assortment of people; ex-military officers, ranchers, religious leaders, mayors, athletes and public health officials. All spoke out against the massive tar sands pipeline proposal that would pump millions of gallons of corrosive tar sands oil through the breadbasket of the country, threatening crucial drinking water aquifers and communities stretching from Montana to Texas.
“This pipeline will keep us addicted to oil and it will get more of our guys killed,” Ret. Brigadier Gen. Steven Anderson told a panel of State Department officials. “This is about CO2 emissions, clean water and American blood.”
Mike Klink, a safety inspector who worked on the pipeline, told the panel that there have been 14 leaks in portions of the pipeline built so far. “Given the integrity of this project, we can’t allow this. Please adopt real quality standards,” he testified.
Randy Thompson, a Nebraska rancher, complained that people in his state are not being listened to. “We feel like we’re being thrown under the bus for a project that in the private interests of the oil companies,” he said.
Deborah White Plume of the Lakota Nation said the pipeline would cross hundreds of rivers and put her community at risk. “Just say no to a pipeline that is against mother earth and sacred water.”
NRDC's Susan Casey-Lefkowitz also testified about increasing business opposition to the tar sands pipeline. Yesterday, she said, a coalition of 200 business leaders sent a letter to President Obama stating the pipeline undermines the country’s commitment to a clean energy economy. “The business community is sending a clear message to the President,” Casey-Lefkowitz said. “The pipeline would move our country in the wrong direction.”
Debra White Plume, Gen. Steven Anderson and Jane Kleeb and Allaura Luebbe
address the State Department panel. Photos: Rocky Kistner/NRDC
The auditorium was packed with orange-shirted pipeline supporters bused in by the Labor’s International Union. They mostly sat silently listening to people talk against the pipeline, occasionally clapping when a few supporters stepped forward.
But not all union members were in favor of the pipeline. Dean Hubbard of the Transport Union of America said many American union members are opposed to the pipeline. “Construction of this project is not in the interest of the U.S.," he said. “We must transition to the clean energy economy that includes transportation infrastructure. We need to upgrade the grid based on sound science and technology.”
Mike Richter, a three-time U.S. Olympian hockey star who led the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup in 1994, spoke out against the pipeline. “As we learned in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf," he said, "environmental threats to communities can be just as great as any terrorist threat.”
Jane Kleebe, executive director of Bold Nebraska, a group that has fought for protection of the Sand Hills region, told the panel, “We are Sand Hills lovers and tar sands fighters.” She then introduced Nebraska rancher Allaura Luebbe, who broke down in tears over the proposed pipeline that she says would destroy her community she has worked so hard for. “I don’t want people dead from cancer,” she implored the panel.
Fr. Jacek Orzechowski, a leader with the Franciscan Action Network, spoke out against the pipeline on moral grounds. “We should instead be building projects that focus on love, solidarity and concern for the poor. This is a dangerous mirage. We urge the State Department to stop this project that will be devastating to life on the planet.”
As testimony continued, protesters gathered outside in the warm autumn sunlight, energized by a new call to community action. The Occupy Wall Street protests, which my colleague Rahda Adhar just blogged about, provided an invisible buzz in the air. The tar sands protesters seemed to ride a wave of new-found enthusiasm.
Bill McKibben and Mike Richter address tar sands protesters in DC
Photos: Rocky Kistner/NRDC
Many came to hear Bill McKibben, founder of 360.org and organizer of the pipeline protests in front of the White House last month that resulted in more than 1,200 arrests. “The State Department rigged this a long time ago,” McKibben told the colorful, sign-waving crowd that resembled an era long forgotten in Washington. “All this work matters. We don’t know if we’re going to win the fight, but two months ago there wasn’t even a fight to begin with. “
McKibben is helping organize a protest to encircle the White House on Nov 6th, a year before the next election. “People have to do something," he told the crowd. "We’re not just changing light bulbs, we’re changing the country.”
The fight ahead no doubt will be a hard one for protesters who have risked arrest to fight a pipeline they say is dangerous and misguided. The election may be a year off, but here in this crowd something new and different was building. More and more people from all walks of life are joining an effort to change the way Washington does business. In greater numbers they are in the streets and public forums making their voices heard. They're determined to prove the status quo is no longer acceptable--and that decisions won’t be made by powerful corporations with profits in mind.
Where all this goes no one knows. But today in Washington, the future looks a lot different from the past.