ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. Dozens of environmental activists showed up in front of the White House today. They were there to be heard and to get arrested. It was part on an ongoing peaceful protest against a proposed oil pipeline that would cut across the American Midwest. Organizers say that over the past 10 days, about 800 people have been handcuffed and bussed off to a police station. NPR's Richard Harris has the story.
RICHARD HARRIS: At issue here, it's a proposed pipeline which would connect oil resources in Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Texas coast. The 1,700 mile long Keystone XL, as it's called, would help our friendly northern neighbor expand development of one of the largest, but dirtiest, sources of oil on the plant. It's bound up in hardened formations called tar sands and it's not easy to extract. The Obama administration says it will decide by the end of the year whether to approve this pipeline.
So, environmental groups are making that decision a test of the administration's resolve to move away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner sources of energy.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTORS)
HARRIS: And that's where the White House protests come in.
JIM SCONYERS: We're trying to send a message to Barack Obama and America that we got to get off the dirty energy treadmill because catastrophe is looming if we don't.
HARRIS: Jim Sconyers came in from West Virginia today to take part in the protest. The 67-year-old has $100 in his pocket, the fine he expects to pay once he gets arrested at the highly choreographed sit-in. He says tar sands are much worse for the environment than what we pump out of the ground elsewhere.
SCONYERS: Oh, my god. It's tremendously dirtier.
HARRIS: Tar sands get cooked with natural gas burners to liberate the oil, so producing the oil adds emissions to the atmosphere. Liz Barratt-Brown from the Natural Resources Defense Council says emissions from producing oil for the Keystone XL pipeline would be about the same as building seven new coal-fired power plants.
LIZ BARRATT-BROWN: So when you think about bringing a pipeline in that is the equivalent of seven new plants, I actually think that's quite significant.
HARRIS: Of course, the Earth's fate doesn't hinge on the emissions equivalent to a few additional coal plants, but activist Bill McKibben, who helped organize this protest, isn't just thinking about what the Keystone XL pipeline would deliver. He's concerned that if the pipeline goes ahead, the oil sands industry would really take off and exploit the vast Canadian deposits.
BILL MCKIBBEN: This pipeline is a bad idea. The tar sands at the far end of it are the second biggest pool of carbon on earth. And if we burn them, if we burn them in a big way, as NASA's Jim Hansen said, it's essentially game over for the climate.
HARRIS: For McKibben, this really is the moment of truth, akin to what Brazil did 15 years ago when it took serious steps to preserve the Amazon rainforest.
MCKIBBEN: That was a unique biological treasure. North America has a unique geological treasure, this tar sands formation. Why don't we have the same kind of responsibility to the world to just keep that oil in the ground?
HARRIS: And there's another reason environmental activists have galvanized around this issue, the politics of the moment. Courtney Hights says she campaigned for Obama in 2008, worked for him after the election and she's putting her hope in him now.
COURTNEY HIGHT: This is an opportunity where the president can make the decision and he doesn't actually have to engage Congress, which has been a particular roadblock in a lot of the progress that I think the president has tried to make. This is a chance where he can actually make the decision.
HARRIS: Around 11:30 this morning, the crowd across from the White House looks on as their colleagues start getting arrested and squired into a waiting bus. Elevating the Keystone XL pipeline to a symbol carries some risks. Many Americans believe we should be promoting oil development to help keep the price of oil in check. The pipeline oil is too small a fraction of global oil supply to make a significant difference one way or the other, but the symbolism to drill or not to drill cuts both ways. Michael Levi is at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
MICHAEL LEVI: If you expect the president to kill every development that marginally increases greenhouse gas emissions and conclude that if he doesn't, then he's not serious about climate change, you'll be sorely disappointed. This is a pragmatic president and he is not going to decide everything just based on symbolism.
HARRIS: And the fact is, American automobiles are already burning oil from the Canadian tar sands. Other pipelines bring in about a million barrels a day. The Keystone XL would not even double our imports of this dirty, but abundant, crude. Richard Harris, NPR News.