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Yesterday, tens of thousands of protesters called on President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. It's a controversial project that would carry heavy crude from Canada to refineries on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports protesters are trying to encourage President Obama to make good on his commitment to act on climate change.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: In his inaugural address from outside the U.S. Capitol, President Obama said...

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.

SHOGREN: Just a few weeks later, next to the Washington Monument, Paul Birkeland was one of a couple dozen people holding a long, white tube above their heads.

What is that you're holding onto?

PAUL BIRKELAND: It's a backbone. It's a spine. And the idea is to ask the president to have some spine and stand up to oil companies, and reject the Keystone Pipeline.

SHOGREN: The activists are focusing on the Keystone XL pipeline because it would carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada. To make this oil, companies use complex extraction and processing techniques that use a lot of energy. So it has a larger greenhouse gas footprint than conventional crude.

Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, from Rhode Island, told the crowd that Congress is sleepwalking through the crisis on climate change. But he said protesters have an important ally.

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REPRESENTATIVE SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: There's a man over there in the White House. He has found his voice on climate change. Are we going to have his back?

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SHOGREN: Other speakers sounded less sure of the president's intentions. Van Jones, a former adviser to President Obama, says it would be disastrous if the project gets a green light.

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VAN JONES: It would be like lighting a fuse on a carbon bomb. That's what it would be like doing, Mr. President.

SHOGREN: The Obama administration already let the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline go ahead. The State Department is expected to decide soon on the part that would cross the border from Canada, and stretch to Oklahoma.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hey, Obama! We don't want no climate drama. Hey, Obama! We...

SHOGREN: Organizers say it was the biggest climate rally ever in the United States. They claim about 35,000 people participated, although there was no independent crowd count.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Chanting) Hey, hey, ho, ho. The Keystone Pipeline got to go. Hey, hey...

SHOGREN: The crowd did stretch for several blocks as it made its way around the White House. Despite a cold wind and snow flurries, parents brought along young children. Heather Clark wrapped her two toddlers in a sleeping bag, and put them in their stroller.

HEATHER CLARK: Events like Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, and everything that I've been reading lately says it's happening. And if we don't do something really, really soon, we're all going to be in a state where we're not going to recognize the planet where we live.

SHOGREN: Buses brought college students from many states to the National Mall. Will Jones was one of them. He traveled overnight from Eastern Michigan University. He thinks the president's under a lot of pressure from oil companies.

WILL JONES: Now is the time for him to just - kind of man up a little bit and make a decision. You know, that's what he's in office to do.

SHOGREN: But some energy experts say environmentalists are focusing too much on Keystone. They argue that even if that pipeline isn't built, Canadian tar sands oil will find another way to flow. Retired Army Col. Dan Nolan represents a group of national security experts called Operation Free. He says there are clear national security benefits to getting more oil from Canada. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: Nolan says U.S. dependence on all foreign sources of oil, including Canadian oil, has national security risks.]

DAN NOLAN: We're putting America's sons and daughters at risk by having to protect oil-production capability in the Middle East.

SHOGREN: The real challenge, he says, is to shift the world off oil and other fossil fuels. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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