48 Arrested at Keystone Pipeline Protest as Sierra Club Lifts 120-Year Ban on Civil Disobedience

Forty-eight people, including civil rights leader Julian Bond and NASA climate scientist James Hansen, were arrested Wednesday in front of the White House as part of an ongoing protest calling on the Obama administration to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. The action came before a rally planned for Sunday on Washington’s National Mall, which organizers have dubbed “the largest climate rally in history.” We speak to Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, who was arrested in the first act of civil disobedience in the organization’s 120-year history.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Forty-eight environmental activists were arrested Wednesday in front of the White House as part of an ongoing protest calling on the Obama administration to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. The proposed 1,700-mile pipeline would deliver tar sands oil from Canada to refineries in Texas. The action came before a rally planned for Sunday on Washington’s National Mall, which organizers have dubbed “the largest climate rally in history.”

Among those arrested on Wednesday were two top leaders from the Sierra Club: the group’s executive director, Michael Brune, and President Allison Chin.The protest marked the first time the Sierra Club has engaged in civil disobedience in its 120-year history.

Others arrested included civil rights leader Julian Bond, Bill McKibben of 350.org, NASA climate scientist James Hansen, lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and actress Daryl Hannah. They were charged with failure to disperse and obey lawful orders, and released on $100 bond each. This is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Julian Bond.

ROBERT F. KENNEDY JR.: I think President Obama is going to kill the pipeline.

INTERVIEWER: Why do you say that?

ROBERT F. KENNEDY JR.: Because I think it’s the right thing to do, and I think he knows that. And I think he–you know, I think he has a strong moral core, and I think John Kerry does, too. And I think, ultimately, he would not do something that is–that is this catastrophic and irresponsible and reckless.

JULIAN BOND: This is a decision that affects all Americans, and we want to make sure he does the right thing, which is to say no to the pipeline. It’s a great deal for Canada, great deal for Mexico; doesn’t do much for the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: That was former chair of the NAACP, Julian Bond; before that, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The protest outside the White House came one day after President Obama addressed climate change during his State of the Union.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct–I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go now to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by two of the protesters, now out of jail, who were arrested yesterday outside the White House. Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, his most recent book is called Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal. And we’re joined by Daryl Hannah, the actress and activist, who was previously arrested in Texas in October for protesting the Keystone XL pipeline.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Michael Brune. This is historic for your organization, Michael. In its 120-year history, you are the first leader of the organization to get arrested in a civil disobedience. Why?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Well, first, thanks for having me on the show.

And it might sound a little surprising that an organization like the Sierra Club, that’s been around for so long and has been a part of so many important fights, that it’s the first time we do civil disobedience. But we look at this project, the tar sands pipeline, and it’s a boondoggle. It’s such a–it would contribute to such a climate disaster that we realize we have to use every single tool of democracy in order to fight this thing. We’ll fight it in the courts. We’ll fight it in statehouses and here in the Beltway, in the streets. But we realize that we have to do every single thing that we can to make sure that instead of putting $7 billion into a dirty oil pipeline, that we’re investing in clean energy instead.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the importance of this particular decision that the government must make on the XL pipeline in terms of the continuing crisis of climate change in the country and around the world?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Well, that’s the challenge here, is that last year we had record droughts and record wildfires and temperatures a full degree’s above the previous record in the lower 48, a thousand-mile storm that hit the Eastern Seaboard. And the first big test for the president of his commitment to fight climate change is whether or not we’re going to build a pipeline that would take almost a million barrels of oil every day, the dirtiest oil on the planet, ship it through the U.S. and have most of it be exported. So what we’re doing to–what we’re trying to do is to convince President Obama that he needs to put his full muscle and his full ambition to match the scale of this challenge.

It’s not just about the pipeline; it’s making sure that we’re turning away from fossil fuels, the most extreme sources of dirty energy everywhere–drilling in the Arctic, blowing the tops off of our mountains in Appalachia, building this tar sands pipeline. All of those would just deepen and extend our dependence on fossil fuels, when clean energy is growing by leaps and bounds. It’s coming online in record proportions. And so, we want to push Obama as aggressively as we can to embrace a clean energy future.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Brune, have you gotten a chance to speak with President Obama? He made a very strong statement at the State of the Union address.

MICHAEL BRUNE: I have not–I have not talked with him since the–since his inauguration address, but we are talking to White House officials. And the clear message we want to deliver is that the president has an enormous amount of executive authority, and we want his ambition to match the scale of this challenge. I agree with what Bobby Kennedy said yesterday, that we believe that the president has a solid moral core, we believe that he is committed sincerely to fighting climate change. And in that context, you can’t build a pipeline from the tar sands. You shouldn’t drill for oil in the Arctic. You should not build liquefied natural gas export terminals that will make fracking happen everywhere across the country with even more intensity. So the challenge right now is to show the president that we’ve got his back. Every time he stands up to big polluters, we will mobilize to defend his strong policies. And at the same time, we’ll push the president to go as far as he needs to go.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, he did allude, obviously, in his State of the Union address to his ability to use his executive powers to be able to implement policies to help the country reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What is your–is this the first big test, as far as you’re concerned, of how serious he is about his threatened use of executive power?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Yeah. And so, look at the last two speeches that the president gave on this. In his inaugural address and then a couple nights ago in the State of the Union, he made the best argument for why we have to tackle climate change. He said we need to do it because we have a moral, ethical responsibility to future generations, to our own generation, but he also talked about the economic opportunity that’s inherent in a clean energy transition.

And so, what we need to do now is to say, “When you stand up to these large oil companies, massive coal and gas companies, we’ve got your back.” There are millions of people in the U.S. already that are being powered by clean energy, and there are hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. and around the world that will fight for a clean energy future. We have a big grassroots movement in this country. Many of them will show up on the National Mall on Sunday, February 17th, the largest climate rally in U.S. history. But the challenge now is to show that this movement is bigger than Big Oil, it’s bigger than Big Coal, it’s bigger than the gas industry. And we are just as creative, just as relentless, as any opposition that the president might face.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Brune, in 2011, I asked Cindy Schild of the American Petroleum Institute why her organization and TransCanada are pushing so hard for this pipeline. She denied having any financial interest in having the project approved, saying API is looking out for the country’s energy security. This is an excerpt of what she said.

CINDY SCHILD: API doesn’t have a financial interest in the pipeline. I mean, we’re looking out for, again, energy security, national security. We also see supply flexibility and reliability benefits to being able to bring the third-largest resource base from Canada, and our number one trading partner, down to our largest refining center in the Gulf.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Cindy Schild in the American Petroleum Institute. And, of course, President Obama stresses, above all else, jobs. Your response, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune?

MICHAEL BRUNE: Look, this is a decision between what’s right and what’s easy, right? We’ve been building pipelines for more than a century. We’ve been building coal-fired power plants and refineries, oil refineries, for more than a century. We know how to do that. We know how to build out fossil fuel infrastructure. The whole point of fighting climate change is that we can’t do that anymore and expect to have a stable climate.

Last year, the International Energy Agency said that if we want to keep warming below two degrees Celsius, an increase in temperatures below two degrees Celsius, three-and-a-half degrees Fahrenheit, if we want to keep our temperature increases below three-and-a-half degrees Fahrenheit, at least two-thirds of the oil and coal and gas that we know about all around the world has to stay in the ground. Two-thirds of our fossil fuel reserves have to stay in the ground if we want to have a shot at keeping warming at three-and-a-half degrees Fahrenheit, which is a reckless goal considering that we’ve only had about an increase–a degree increase so far. So, in that context, why would we exploit new sources of oil that’s even dirtier than conventional oil? Why would we drill in the Arctic? Why would we blow off the tops of our mountains just to get a little bit of coal? If we’re going to win on climate change, we have to start taking bolder action. We have to start doing it now.

The good news here is that solar is cheaper than ever before. Wind is cheaper than ever before. Nine states get at least 10 percent of their power from wind. California will soon get 30 percent solar plus wind. Iowa is at 25 percent, just wind only. So, all around the country, millions of people are getting their power from clean energy. Millions more are working in the industry, the clean energy industry all around the world. The clean energy future isn’t decades away; it’s actually happening right now. So, we have a shot at arresting climate change, but we can’t kid ourselves and keep investing in fossil fuels at the same time.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Brune, we want to thank you for being with us, executive director of the Sierra Club. It’s the first time in the organization’s 120-year history, an organization founded by the environmentalist John Muir, that a head of the organization has been arrested. When we come back from break, we’ll be joined by actress and activist Daryl Hannah. She was arrested in Texas protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, and yesterday she went to jail in Washington, D.C., for protesting the same pipeline, this time in front of the White House. Stay with us.