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WASHINGTON, OTTAWA AND CALGARY — Thousands rallied on the Mall in Washington, D.C., demanding President Barack Obama say “no” to the controversial Keystone XL pipeline and keep his promises to take action against climate change caused by man-made greenhouse-gas emissions.
Organizers officially said 35,000 or more braved a cold, windy February afternoon for the protest, but turnout seemed significantly smaller. Even some of the protesters who had journeyed cross-country for the widely promoted Forward on Climate rally, voiced disappointment at the numbers.
No matter the size of the rally, Sunday’s protest clearly established that potent political forces are in play on both sides of the Keystone decision. For environmentalists especially, Keystone has become a symbol; it’s not just another “old” energy project, it’s a test of the President’s promises to take serious steps on climate change.
“I wouldn’t read too much into the numbers,” at the rally, said David Biette, director of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a leading think tank. But he sees little room for compromise. “The environmentalists have drawn a line in the sand,” on Keystone, the pipeline that will funnel carbon-laden Alberta oil sands across the United States to Gulf oil refineries.
A “No” on Keystone will signal Mr. Obama is willing to take significant political risks for progress on climate change.
A “Yes” will dismay the entire environmental movement, reaching far beyond the pipeline.
Until now, the President has deftly balanced competing pressures by permitting oil and gas drilling even as he cut vehicle emissions and promoted the boom in natural gas from shale. But the Keystone decision – ultimately made in the Oval Office – defies compromise.
Police don’t issue official crowd estimates because they are often disputed. However, a pair of officers with experience at big rallies on the Mall suggested the turnout was in the “thousands, perhaps ten.”
“Fantastic for a cold day” said Howie Chong, president of the Sierra Club of Canada. “The coalition we are building is really impressive.”
But a senior official with one of the organizing groups behind Sunday’s rally acknowledged privately that more had promised to attend than actually arrived.
Daniel Kessler, a spokesman for 350.org, one of the main organizing groups, hotly disputed low estimates. He said actual turnout was even greater than the 35,000 estimate “as many people later joined the march.” But long lines of portable toilets were mostly unused, some protesters left early and a straggling column marched on the White House two hours into the rally.
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