Protesting Pipeline Dreams

On a quiet Monday morning in August, monks and ministers gathered under tall trees outside of the White House and began organizing their plan for the day: They would walk in two lines to the mansion's gates, sit down and wait for arrest.

While this objective may seem a strange task for a minister, it was no ordinary workday. This was the day faith-based organizations joined environmental groups in mass protests over a proposed oil pipeline.

"We as Christians aspire to follow the example of Jesus," Fr. Jacek Orzechowski said to the crowd before risking arrest. Orzechowski represented the Christian community as part of the Franciscan Action Network. "Jesus, who had particular concern for those who were on the margins of society; Jesus who spoke about how we will be judged, not only as individuals, but as nations, according to the criteria of how are we treating the least of those among us."

In 2005, the Canadian energy company TransCanada proposed Keystone XL, a tar sands pipeline that would bring as much as 900,000 barrels of crude oil per day through the western half of the United States and cross from Alberta all the way to Texas. The system's first phase began commercial operation in 2010, but the State Department still needs to approve an expansion in order for the full project to move forward.

TransCanada and supporters of Keystone XL claim it can boost the economy, promote job growth and increase tax revenue. According to their research, the project will also lower gas prices and improve energy security for the United States.

"Through the Keystone system, the U.S. can secure access to a stable and reliable supply of oil from Canada ... or it can import more higher-priced oil from nations who do not share America's interests or values," says Russ Girling, president and CEO of TransCanada.

But dissidents argue no economic impact justifies the environmental and human destruction the pipeline could cause. According to Tar Sands Action—an activist group leading nationwide protests over the project—the pipeline would greatly expand the tar sands oil operations in Canada and further lock the U.S. into the hard-to-extract energy business.

In addition, while TransCanada only predicts one oil spill every seven years, the project has already allowed 12 spills in one year. If the pipeline extends into the U.S. heartland, spills could occur in the country's agricultural center and severely damage the U.S. water supply by polluting the Ogallala Aquifer. Indigenous communities fear displacement and permanent damage to their homelands.

Perhaps most important to activists, the pipeline could potentially release carbon into the atmosphere, which could threaten further climate change.

In August, Tar Sands Action launched a campaign against the pipeline by organizing two weeks of sit-ins at the White House. The resulting 1,252 arrests and more than 600,000 petition signatures made their initial work the largest environmental civil disobedience in decades.

"I didn't want to participate," says Abel Russ, who was arrested in the first days of the protests primarily over the climate change issue. "But I feel like anyone who knows has an obligation to do whatever they can to say something public about it."

Tarah Heinzen, who was also arrested in front of the White House, agrees. "If people are not willing to take risks and commit acts of civil disobedience to challenge corporate power, nothing will change our backwards policies."

Soon religious leaders joined in, and on Aug. 29, communities of faith led the sit-ins, where leaders from Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist and other spiritual organizations spoke out against the pipeline and faced voluntary arrest.

Over the next few weeks, the State Department is entering public comment hearings in states affected by the pipeline. The largest and most dynamic hearings were expected to be the Sept. 27 hearing in Lincoln, Neb., and the Sept. 28 hearing in Austin, Texas. On Oct. 7, a final public hearing will take place at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C.

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In the meantime, Tar Sands Action protests continue across the country in affected cities and at presidential campaign events—a response due in large part to the momentum from the 1,252 arrests in D.C.

The State Department expects to make a final decision on the pipeline extension by the end of 2011.

"This is not only a political issue—this is a profoundly spiritual and moral issue as well," Orzechowski says. "If we stay on the same trajectory of our addiction to oil, it threatens life. And as people of faith who can uphold the values of life, we have to do what we preach and join the dissent to speak out for God's creation."

Joanna Castle Miller is a dramatic writer and journalist based in Washington, D.C. She blogs at and tweets @jocastlemiller.


Elyssa Schroeder


Elyssa Schroeder commented…

I really appreciate creation care and standing for what one believes. I honestly have only skimmed the surface of what the pipeline's (and others like it) ramifications on the environment will be, but right now I'm in the midst of a small, historically economically depressed town which is now greatly benefitting from a newly found huge oil and natural gas deposit. It makes the issue so much more complicated when you can see the other side: the people who have always had to scrape together a living now being able to have enough money to help others and schools that have continually been on the brink of closure due to low scores and teacher shortages get enough money to help the kids learn. I'm not saying that I wholeheartedly support this pipeline but the issue is bigger than the article makes it seem.


Robertnevillemd commented…

Does Jesus drive a Pruus?
If that seems like a silly question then stop invoking his name for your pet causes.
Personally, I love oil and especially cheap oil.
If you guys want to sink your teeth into a cause, how about Christians being being persecuted in Muslim countries.
Otherwise you know what you can do with your social justice.


christa commented…

The "science" is false, but we are STILL called to treat God's creation with care.
FYI: We started recording temperatures worldwide during the DARK AGES, when it was EXCEEDINGLY cold. If you understandmeteorology, you will also understand that we go through random cycles of warm and cold. It was very hot in the CONUS this winter/early spring, but still we ended up with a GLOBAL temperature at -.14
During the 1990's we went through an extended warm ENSO phase, known as El well as an active solar cycle = higher temperatures. This is a NATURALphenomenon. There are MANY meteroloigists who proudly shout that "climate change" is based on complete bunk.
We simply do NOT have enough data to prove that "climate change" exists. To say that it is a fact is misleading at best. Our government has a LOT of money invested in this lie.
Living green lives, and eating ETHICALLY is important. God wants us to eat ethically, to pay fair wages to the people who provide us food. But to say that we need to do ANYTHING based on bunk science is irresponsible.
THINK outside of the box, look at the data in an unbiased way

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