WASHINGTON — Hoping President Barack Obama, CC ’83, was watching from his window, 13 Columbia undergraduates protesting the Keystone XL pipeline were arrested in front of the White House Sunday afternoon. The students were released later that evening.
The group was part of XL Dissent, a student-organized march against the pipeline, which drew more than 1,000 students from 100 colleges and universities to Washington, D.C., over the weekend.
“The point of getting arrested is that it’s making a much stronger political statement,” Michael Greenberg, CC ’16 and founder of XL Dissent, said at a civil disobedience training session Saturday to loud cheers.
“You just don’t get media if you’re just at a rally,” Elana Sulakshana, CC ’17 and an organizer of the Columbia delegation, said.
Police arrested 372 protesters from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. for “blocking passage,” an infraction that carries a $50 fine.
The XL Dissent protest started Sunday morning with a rally in Georgetown University’s Red Square, after which students marched for two miles through the streets of Washington to the White House.
Protesters laid out black tarps representing oil spills along the way, including one in front of Secretary of State John Kerry’s house. The march ended with a rally in front of the White House and a demonstration in which students zip-tied themselves to the White House fence or pretended to die on top of an “oil spill.”
“The Keystone Pipeline is enormous,” said Iliana Salazar-Dodge, CC ’16, who was arrested Sunday along with Sulakshana and Greenberg. “Because it’s so big, it could be a big turning point in the fight for climate change, or it could reaffirm our commitment to fossil fuels. The time has come where we have to do something now.”
Although the Keystone XL has brought many environmentalists together under one cause, an unwanted possible result is a fractured and fragmented movement. On Sunday, students held signs proclaiming themselves as “ecosocialists” alongside ones that said “Hope & Change, not Climate Change” and “Planet over Profit.”
Many of the student protesters were involved in environmental activism groups at their schools.
Rachel Thomas, Tufts ’16, was arrested Sunday with the other students. Thomas said she is heavily involved in her school’s divestment from fossil fuels—like many of the Columbia protesters.
Chris Bangert-Drowns, University of Maryland ’17, said he is a proponent of student power on a general level, because students in and around Washington do not have official representation.
Because the proposed pipeline, which would carry crude oil from the tar sands of Northern Alberta, Canada to refineries along the Gulf Coast, cuts across the border between the United States and Canada, it must be approved by both the State Department and Obama. The Keystone XL is seen by environmentalists as a test of the president’s resolve to fight climate change—a goal the president has said would be a linchpin of his second term.
Greenberg said the goal of XL Dissent is to force Obama to refuse to allow the pipeline to be built and to begin a wave of young activism on the issue.
From speaking with students in XL Dissent, it was clear that few had ever been arrested in an act of civil disobedience before, and some had never even been to a protest.
Much of Saturday’s civil disobedience training session involved organizers from DC Action Lab, a Washington-based activist group, and more experienced protesters giving advice (“Bring your own toilet paper.”) and telling people what to bring, which was only a photo ID and exactly $50 bail (“The police do not make change.”).
“Should I zip-tie myself to the fence or die on the spill to get arrested?” Sulakshana asked other Columbia students during the rally.
Greenberg started XL Dissent in September 2013 after he worked as a summer fellow at 350.org, a nonprofit that organizes and raises awareness for climate change movements. Sunday’s march aimed to bring student voices into the debate over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
“We can only afford to burn 20 percent of the conventional fuel reserves we have, and the fact that we’re even considering this is absurd,” Greenberg said, referring to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s prediction that disastrous climate change would be inescapable if more than 20 percent of the world’s fossil fuel reserves were burned.
A 2011 EU study said that refining oil from tar sands produced 22 percent more emissions than refining oil from more conventional sources. And according to the Alberta Ministry of Energy, around 11 percent—or 170 billion barrels—of the world’s oil reserves lie in the province.
Environmentalists are concerned that the Keystone XL pipeline would pave the way for a massive expansion in the extraction and refining of oil sands, along with potential spills and problems that could ruin habitats along the pipeline.
But proponents of the pipeline aren’t convinced that its effects will be as dire as environmentalists think. A State Department report from January concluded that oil would be extracted from the tar sands at the same rate whether the pipeline were built or not. A Feb. 21 editorial in Science written by the magazine’s editor-in-chief Marcia McNutt argued that transporting oil by pipeline is at least safer than by road or rail.
“That’s like saying, ‘Let’s kill the world because the world’s going to get killed anyway,’” Greenberg said.
“Even if they build a pipeline in Canada anyway, if Obama vetoes it, it would send a message,” she said.
XL Dissent is a rough hierarchy of organizers, campus leaders, and participants, not a leaderless movement, Greenberg said. The group’s next steps are unclear as it waits for an answer from the White House.
Greenberg, as he marched with the protesters he helped to mobilize, seemed bewildered that XL Dissent had been such a success.
“It’s a little intimidating, because people might be a little disappointed by future things that I do,” he said.