Features, University News

Undergrads protest Keystone XL pipeline in D.C.

Students joined the largest climate march in U.S. history to protest the Keystone XL pipeline

Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Members of Brown environmental groups joined a crowd of about 50,000 protesters marching in Washington, D.C. this weekend.

For over 100 environmental student leaders within the Brown community, the long weekend was a break from classes ­— but not from advocating their cause. Living up to their activist image, Brown students traveled to the nation’s capital Sunday to march alongside an estimated 35,000 to 50,000 other protestors in opposition to the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

From the Washington Monument to the White House and back, protesters urged President Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline and to move forward with other environmental initiatives. The protest — organized by The Sierra Club and 350.org —involved 168 organizations and was the largest climate march in United States history, according to The Sierra Club website.


Laying the groundwork

Bill McKibben, a founder of 350.org, suggested that Brown students participate in the rally when he visited campus in November to speak about divestment from fossil fuel companies. The Rhode Island Student Climate Coalition organized the transportation and participation of Brown students in the protest.

RISCC “thought it was important to organize as many Brown students as possible to go to the protest,” wrote Mara Freilich ’15, former RISCC representative to emPower, in an email to The Herald. She wrote that she believes “it is the responsibility of citizens to actively participate in the political process.”

RISCC is a member of emPower, “Brown’s umbrella environmental organization” that promotes green initiatives, according to the group’s website. The off-campus trip provided an opportunity to unite, engage and inspire students from a broad range of environmental campaigns on campus, Freilich wrote.


Passionate perspectives

Though the march promoted a wide variety of environmental reforms, it was mostly targeted toward Obama, who will approve or reject the Keystone XL pipeline in the coming months, said Alison Kirsch ’15, a member of EcoReps, another subgroup of emPower.

Approving the Keystone XL pipeline “would be one of (the) worst decisions” for Obama’s environmental agenda, wrote Jenny Li ’14, emPower’s executive director, in an email to The Herald.

“In every single aspect, it doesn’t make sense,” Kirsch said of the pipeline, adding that “we cannot afford to be tapping into (the Alberta Tar Sands)” given the “dirtiness of the fuel it would allow us to use.”

“‘Energy independence’ that still depends on fossil fuels is no independence at all,” Li wrote. “We are fed lies that this pipeline will bring jobs and energy independence,” but “we need green jobs, not temporary jobs that will contribute to the further destruction of our environment,” she wrote.

Freilich wrote that “stopping the Keystone XL pipeline is a decisive step toward preventing fossil fuel ‘lock-in,’” a scenario that occurs when CO2 levels in the atmosphere exceed 450 parts per million, according to the International Energy Agency.

Kirsch said the prospect of irreversible climate change is “frightening.”

Li echoed the sentiment, writing that “we will have failed ourselves” by neglecting to address climate change.


Hope for the future  

“Obama’s recent rhetoric was encouraging to the protesters,” said Charlotte Biren ’16, a member of EcoReps, referring to the president’s inaugural speech and State of the Union address.

Kirsch also said Obama “seems open to ideas” regarding environmental reform.

“We need to stop building fossil-fuel infrastructure and transition to building renewable energy infrastructure during Obama’s second term,” Freilich wrote.

The number of people that attended the rally “really exceeded expectations,” Kirsch said.

Biren said the sheer number of protesters “couldn’t be ignored.” Before people marched from the Washington Monument to the White House, a rally featured a diverse group of speakers — including Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said EcoReps member David Chodakewitz ’15.

“There have been much bigger protests in D.C. before,” but the march was “a good spark to get the ball rolling,” said Chodakewitz. Given that the event was the largest climate march in America’s history, Kirsch said news coverage will help amplify the protest’s influence.


Rallying for a common cause

“I was amazed by the energy and diversity of the crowd,” wrote Klara Zimmerman ’15, emPower’s communications director, in an email to The Herald. Citing the unity and energy among Brown students, she wrote that “it was a whole different experience to stand with 50,000 people, all fighting for the same cause.”

“We definitely made our voices heard,” Zimmerman wrote.

The protest “was probably one of the coolest things I’ve experienced,” Kirsch said.

Though there is “no way of quantifying the impact” of the protest, the trip to the nation’s capital was “definitely worth the time and travel expenses,” Li wrote.

The protest will remain “a powerful memory no matter what happens,” Biren said.


  1. Common sense says:

    They would be better off working than wasting their time.
    When the protester are ready to give up their use of oil then they have a right to speak up.
    How did they get to D.C?

    • No, many pooled together in buses or took other mass transit. I was there along with 30,000 plus folks to urge the President on his day to reject the XL Pipeline, which is an insane project. TransCanda, along with other fossil fuel giants, want to strip mine an area the size of Florida in Alberta Canada and create a toxic wasteland. Already it can be seen from space.
      The CO2 spewed will cause the climate to pass the tipping point. That is why the students were there, they will inherit the mess and crisis.
      We have the means and technology to transform our economy to a non carbon energy source, only if we stop the corruption of the system of the Oil/Coal companies on the politicians that are supposed to serve the public interest and not special interest.

      • Living in real world life says:

        These students have no idea what real life is. Little do they know this cheap oil is a vital key to our growth so they will have jobs when they get out of school. Right now the USA is going against a global economy. If we don’t use this cheap oil another country will which will make us even less competitive in a global market. What kind of investor is going to want create jobs where the employees have to pay more for transit combined with our higher wages. We get the cheaper energy to make up for our higher standard of living.

        • Hope you like your “job” on a planet that can not support civilization.

        • you are so right

        • Looking forward, realistically says:

          Cheap oil is vital to our growth as a nation, but what about our stability as a planet? The process of mining tar sands will substantially increase the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, threatening our very existence as a species. If we reach fossil fuel “lock-in”, alluded to by the article, an irreversible process of continuous global temperature increase will begin. Once this process begins, it won’t be long before the planet stops being habitable. This talk expresses explains the idea very clearly: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7ktYbVwr90

          The Keystone XL Pipeline threatens to carry us beyond this “tipping point”. When you look at the arguments from this perspective, it becomes a whole different story. What is our real priority: national growth and international power, or the preservation of our planet’s habitability and our survival as a species? It may sound like an exaggeration, but it is reality. This is a problem that we must face sooner rather than later, or face the consequences.

    • Elizabeth MacDougal says:

      You’re right that anyone protesting oil should be aware of their own use of it. Nobody’s hands are clean. But using currently-available fossil fuels to prevent the burning of even worse forms of those fossil fuels is not hypocritical. The rally was not about accusing people for using fossil fuels at all, but about moving on from what we now recognize as a damaging fuel source.

  2. Common sense says:

    Boy if these people would just use their brains for a worthwhile cause!
    If they want to do without clothes, shoes, computers, heat, electricity, transportation and medicine then let them live by example. Don’t use the highways and buildings if you are against oil!
    All of the above are oil based.
    So stop being hypocritical – you can’t have it both ways.

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