WASHINGTON — Thousands of people are expected to mass at the White House on Sunday to send an environmental message to President Barack Obama: Say no to a proposed pipeline that would import highly polluting oil from Canada.
It's likely to be the biggest environmental protest in Washington in a long time. Protests organizers, speaking at a press conference Friday, said the event is meant to show the president that they're passionate about cleaner energy and want Obama to take their side in the controversy over the pipeline and the source of the heavy crude oil, the tar sands of Alberta, Canada.
"We really, really believe in him," Maura Cowley, a leader of the Energy Action Coalition, a youth environmental movement, said of Obama. "But we're watching this very carefully because it's a symbol of President Obama's commitment to clean energy."
The environmentalists warn that they won't be able to turn out large numbers of voters for Obama in 2012 if he grants the pipeline permit.
"You win elections not because your hardcore supporters turn out, but because they get excited about what you're doing and they bring all their friends with them," said author Bill McKibben, who helped organize civil disobedience against the pipeline this summer. "In a sense, that's what's on offer here."
Obama should simply deny the permit, McKibben said, or at least order a fresh environmental review and delay a decision.
The proposed 1,661 mile-long pipeline from Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast requires a presidential permit because it crosses the U.S.-Canada border.
TransCanada Corp., the company that wants to build the pipeline, has argued that its construction has economic and energy-security benefits. A study written for the company said that 20,000 construction and manufacturing jobs would be created for two years.
Opponents want the president to stop the pipeline because of the risks of spills and of impact on global warming from tapping Canada's vast oil sands. The thick crude from the oil sands produces more heat-trapping carbon-dioxide emissions than regular oil because of the extra energy required in extracting and processing it.
The extra emissions from burning the oil would be the equivalent of the pollutants from 5 million cars or seven coal-fired power plants, according to the Sierra Club.
In addition, the pipeline would cross many rivers, including the Yellowstone in Montana, and the Ogallala aquifer and the environmentally sensitive Sand Hills in Nebraska. The Nebraska legislature is in a special session focused on concerns about the pipeline's route through that state.
TransCanada expects a decision on the permit by the end of the year, company spokesman Terry Cunha said Friday.
"But if there were a delay, the impact would be quite large. We're looking at a million-dollar-a-day impact," he said. Those costs would include the costs of warehousing equipment and paying for materials that wouldn't be used.
TransCanada has contracts with companies that produce the oil in Alberta and from the Bakken oilfield in the Dakotas, Montana and Saskatchewan. The contracts call for shipping the oil to the Texas refineries beginning in 2013. "If there's a delay, it could have an impact on our contracts," Cunha said.
Another argument by supporters is that the Keystone XL pipeline would increase the supply of oil from Canada, potentially reducing imports from less friendly oil-producing countries.
An environmental impact statement about the pipeline concluded that there would be no major environmental impact or effect on climate change. The study argued that the oil sands would be developed whether or not the pipeline is built, because other ways would be found to get the oil to market.
Building or expanding other pipelines, however, could be years off, according to pipeline opponents.
Two proposed pipelines to Canada's west coast and one to Maine face strong opposition in Canada, said Michael Marx, the director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Oil campaign.
Today nearly all of Canada's exports from its oil sands go to the United States, mostly through an existing Keystone pipeline system to the Midwest.
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