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Pipeline Protests Fail to Move White House

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Actress Daryl Hannah is arrested outside the White House during a protest against the Keystone oil pipeline.

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Note to the pipeline protesters outside the White House: He's not listening.

As he turns his focus to jobs and his re-election, President Barack Obama appears to have concluded that the economic benefits of an oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico outweigh the vigorous protests of environmental activists.

About 1,000 activists were arrested outside the White House during the August recess in what the protest's leader, Bill McKibben, called "the largest civil disobedience action in the environmental movement in a generation." The activists say oil extracted from Canadian oil sands could cause irreparable environmental damage and be a "catastrophic threat to our communities."

Despite their pleas, the administration signaled that it is ready to greenlight the project after delaying the permit for the $13 billion project by Calgary, Alberta-based TransCanada for more than a year.

"High unemployment and high oil prices are putting tremendous pressure on the administration on these issues," said Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "In the runup to the election, they are trying to take the most populist position they can both on policy and political ground on oil."

The State Department recently released an environmental assessment finding that the project wouldn't cause significant problems. Energy Secretary Steven Chu followed the report with an interview in which he said, "Having Canada as a supplier for our oil is much more comforting than to have other countries supply our oil."

As administration officials signaled support for the project, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters he wasn't sure whether Obama even knew about the protests outside the White House.

Environmentalists have expressed disappointment in Obama's energy policy. The president was unable to pass a cap-and-trade initiative through Congress last year that would have generated revenue for noncarbon energy sources. He has also resumed drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, despite last year's massive oil spill.

"The administration is quite eager to create jobs in the energy sector, as well as industry. I don't know that they are on opposite sides of that coin at all," Bledsoe said.

A leading oil lobby group has seized Obama's renewed focus on jobs to tout the Keystone pipeline project as a job creator. As the president prepares for Thursday's address to Congress on jobs, the American Petroleum Institute called the pipeline "the largest shovel-ready project."

"The president is looking for every opportunity to create some sort of spark," said Cindy Schild, refining manager for API. "This can impact 20,000 American families immediately."

Proponents estimate the project will create 20,000 immediate jobs in construction and transportation, followed by more than 200,000 jobs when the pipeline is operational. Those figures helped sway the support of at least one labor union. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters endorsed the project this past month, saying it could create opportunities for thousands of construction workers.

"Infrastructure jobs typically put a lot of people to work very quickly. That's two results we'd all like to see: people at work and people at work tomorrow," James Kimball, the union's chief economist, told Roll Call.

In response, environmental activists have been lining up other unions in opposition. The Amalgamated Transit Union and Transport Workers Union issued a joint statement on Aug. 19, saying, "We need jobs, but not ones based on increasing our reliance on tar sands oil."

Opponents of the project say more jobs can be created through alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power.

"We have to weigh those [pipeline] jobs against other jobs that are being held down in other energy sources," Jameson Henn of 350.org, the group leading the White House protests, said in an interview. "To really go full force on clean energy, it's going to take a president that's willing to stand up to Big Oil."

Henn said environmental activists will continue to pressure the president in the runup to the elections, especially in areas directly affected by the pipeline, which would run from North Dakota to Texas.

"We've had people arrested out there who were ranchers from Nebraska, farmers from Texas," Henn said. "I think this is now the premier environmental question facing President Obama going into 2012."

On Friday, Obama further disappointed environmentalists by quashing a new air quality standard for smog proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

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