Mock driblets of oil dotted the sidewalks of downtown Missoula on the evening of Sept. 2. First Friday patrons watched as a woman in a jumpsuit and gas mask scrubbed the black vinyl pads with a toothbrush.
Activists carried a flimsy 10-foot-long fake pipeline, ignoring streetlights and shouting into megaphones. "We are exercising our right of eminent domain on this intersection," they said. "Make way for big oil."
The demonstrations against TransCanada's 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline have landed in Montana, one state the proposed pipeline would cross. Last Friday's march, hastily organized by Northern Rockies Rising Tide and the No Shipments Network, represents the first localization of an escalating international protest movement against Keystone XL.
The protest drew roughly a dozen participants.
NRRT spokesman Steven Schorzman hadn't intended for a massive march. The idea was hatched shortly after hundreds of activists in Washington, D.C. began staging a sit-in outside the White House. "We wanted to support those folks," Schorzman says. "From 3,000 miles away."
Opposition to Keystone XL has grown increasingly vocal in the wake of the Washington sit-in. With the release of the project's final environmental impact statement—and the U.S. State Department's subsequent finding of no significant impact—Schorzman notes a swell of grassroots demonstrations. "There was one in New Zealand," he says, referring to an incident that shut down the Canadian Embassy in Wellington for three hours. "They had one in Minneapolis because Obama was there. Chicago, Portland."
Activists have also staged similar demonstrations in Berlin, Mumbai, and Rio de Janeiro. Picketers greeted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Durban, South Africa this month. Environmentalist and author Bill McKibben, who spearheaded the Washington sit-in, has described it as "by far the biggest civil disobedience action in the environmental movement in many years."
The Washington protest lasted more than two weeks and resulted in the arrests of 1,252 people.
As some activists took to the streets to voice their opposition, others continued to poke holes in arguments favoring the pipeline. Oil Change International, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, claims Keystone XL will not decrease the nation's dependence on foreign oil. An August report from the organization states that demand for gasoline is actually declining in the U.S. "due to increasing vehicle efficiency and slow economic growth." Meanwhile, it adds, oil shale booms in North Dakota and Texas have resulted in "the first rise in U.S. oil production since 1970."
The most radical allegation in Oil Change International's recent report revolves around Valero, one of the top beneficiaries of the Keystone XL project. The group asserts that Valero plans to export much of the Keystone XL oil. During a presentation to investors in early August, Valero pointed to supply-demand imbalances in Latin America and diesel shortages in Europe as compelling reasons to investigate "higher-margin export opportunities." A map illustrating Valero's "margin optimization strategy" underscores Oil Change International's concerns. Port Arthur is depicted as an export hub for diesel and jet fuel to Latin America and Europe; the company's Pembroke refinery in the U.K. is shown exporting refined gasoline from the British Isles to the U.S. (a separate slide indicates 50 percent of Pembroke gasoline destined for markets in New York and Florida).
Valero shot back last week, claiming the company's "volume of exports remains relatively small" and "the vast bulk of our products are made for domestic consumption."
The global protests and scathing reports aren't the only hurdles thrown in front of TransCanada. On Aug. 31, Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska—another state Keystone XL would cross—called on President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to deny the pipeline's approval for fear of damages to the huge Ogallala Aquifer. "This resource is the lifeblood of Nebraska's agriculture industry," Heineman said. "I am concerned that the proposed pipeline will potentially have detrimental effects on this valuable natural resource and Nebraska's economy." Heineman went on to explain that he is "not opposed to pipelines." His opposition to Keystone XL, he said, was purely due to its route across the Ogallala Aquifer.
Nebraska's entire congressional delegation followed Heineman's lead. And Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin issued a similar condemnation of Keystone XL Sept. 5.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer in Montana expressed his continued support for the Keystone XL Pipeline project earlier this summer, saying, "If we don't develop energy in this country, we know the consequences." On Sept. 6, Schweitzer's office said the governor has not changed his position. Sen. Max Baucus and Rep. Denny Rehberg have been equally supportive of the proposal. Sen. Jon Tester remains apprehensive.
Last week's march wasn't NRRT's first attempt at creating a dialogue around Keystone XL in Montana. In early July, members of the group appeared with Earth First! activists in Schweitzer's Helena office. Schorzman considers that event, at which numerous protesters from out of state broke from the debate and danced on a conference table, a major setback for his group and their mission. "We were on our way [to cornering Schweitzer]," he says. "Then the ragtime music kicked up and we lost our credibility."
Schorzman now hopes to regain that credibility. The State Department has scheduled a string of public meetings for September in the six states impacted by the pipeline; they may stage something there, Schorzman says. But NRRT will have some traveling to do. Montana's meeting will take place in Glendive—the only scheduled location that isn't a state capital.