WASHINGTON - In a dramatic sign of growing opposition to construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, 398 students were arrested March 2 after they chained themselves to the White House fence.
A network of students called XL Dissent organized the protest, part of a groundswell of calls upon President Obama to block approval of the pipeline, which will carry millions of gallons of crude oil from the tar sands region in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the United States.
"Obama was the first president I voted for, and I want real climate action and a rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline," Nick Stracco, a senior at Tulane University and one of the organizers of the protest, told the Huffington Post. "The people that voted him into office have made it absolutely clear what we want, and that's to reject Keystone XL."
Over 1,000 students from some 80 campuses and 42 states gathered at Georgetown University and marched on the White House. The students, many dressed in mock hazmat suits, first stopped at the home of Secretary of State John Kerry, where they unfurled a giant black tarp to symbolize an oil spill.
The State Department has issued a finding claiming that building the Keystone XL pipeline won't have a significant environmental impact. The State Department study was necessary because the pipeline crosses international borders and is required for federal approval. Kerry must sign off on the study.
Once at the White House, students again unfurled a giant tarp and lay down on it to symbolize an oil spill. Students then tied themselves to the fence with plastic handcuffs and were arrested.
"The youth really understand the traditional methods of creating change are not sufficient, so we needed to escalate," Aly Johnson-Kurts told Politico. Johnson was one of those arrested.
"They say we are too young to make a difference, but we are proving them wrong, right here, right now," Earthguardians Youth Director Xiuhtezcatl Martinez told the cheering crowd.
This was said to be the largest student civil disobedience action at the White House in a generation. Over 1,200 people of all ages were arrested in a similar protest organized by the environmental group 350.org at the White House in August 2011.
"An entire movement has thrown itself into in this Keystone fight, from local frontline groups to big national green organizations," 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben wrote in an email to Huffington Post. "But this weekend shows the power and bravery of some of the most crucial elements: young people, and activists who understand the centrality of environmental justice."
The Keystone XL pipeline is a project of TransCanada. Once constructed it will transport 830,000 barrels of tar sands crude oil, described as the "dirtiest oil," to its refining destination in the Gulf Coast.
The pipeline would double the amount of tar sands crude oil entering the U.S.
Environmentalists are warning that burning this dirty oil will increase greenhouse gas emissions exponentially at a time when they must be reduced to stem the climate crisis.
They also warn of vast ecological decimation due to extraction from the tar sands and massive oil spills over delicate aquifers and waterways.
In one of the largest spills in U.S. history, one million gallons of oil gushed into Talmadge Creek and Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010 and it still hasn't been fully cleaned up.
Activists from the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands also participated. Three activists were arrested last year trying to block construction of the pipeline by Enbridge Inc., which will also carry tar sands crude oil through the state. They face two to three years in jail if convicted.
Battles have also erupted in Detroit and Chicago over petcoke dumping. Petcoke is a byproduct of the refining process, which many believe is contributing to increases in cancer rates and other health issues.
Also participating in the demonstration were activists from the Indigenous community including Jasmine Thomas from Saik'uz First Nation in British Columbia.
Over 50 First Nation communities that will be impacted along the route of the pipeline are offering some of the fiercest resistance to construction.
"Even President Obama has admitted the jobs created are temporary and very few," American University student Deirdre Shelly said in an interview on Democracy Now!
"There's no reason why those jobs have to be in dirty and expensive oil. America is ready for a clean, green economy and we can begin by saying no to this dirty pipeline," said Shelly.
In another protest, nine students were arrested when they sat in at the State Department building in San Francisco on March 3. XL Dissent organizers vowed the protests and acts of civil disobedience would continue.
Website 350.org has signed up over 70,000 people to commit civil disobedience against the pipeline. Many more actions are expected over the next few months.