Only a few dozen anti-Keystone XL demonstrators showed up Saturday to Washington's Lincoln Park, a few blocks from the Capitol, for what was billed as the main location for a nationwide day of action against the controversial pipeline planning to funnel Canadian oil sands crude to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries.
"I'm disappointed, I hoped there would be more people," said David Barrows, 66, who wore an anti-Keystone T-shift and carried a hand-painted sign calling it the "Kill Line."
Mr. Barrows was among a small crowd that milled around in Lincoln Park, where blue chalk lines were drawn to indicate the perils of sea-level rise that may result from climate change. Speakers decried the use of fossil fuels and urged backing for a campaign to convince the D.C. city council to divest its holdings in conventional oil and gas companies.
Other "Draw the Line" protests were planned in in New York, Seattle and Nebraska, where a barn-raising was planned on the the route of the Keystone XL pipeline. Organizers claimed there will be more than 200 "actions" in cities and towns across the United States and Canada, all of them intended to draw attention to the dangers posed by greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal and oil.
But in Washington, few bothered to show up. Some who did blamed the threat of rain or a communications breakdown by organizers or insisted that the turnout wasn't actually unexpected.
"This is great, I thought there would be only 30 people," said Michelle Levinson, who was wearing an orange "DC Divest" shirt.
Nick Borroz said he had come expecting a lot more people after a week in which Keystone XL was constantly in the news, with supporters in Congress voicing renewed backing of the project and high-profile opponents – including Robert Redford – decrying it.
"It's not very well organized and there's not a lot of people," Mr. Borroz said.
The protests – intended to mark the five years since TransCanada Corp. first sought approval for the 1,900-kilometre, $5.3-billion project to provide a market outlet for Alberta's vast oil sands currently selling as a steep discount to world prices – are part of a broad ongoing effort to thwart Keystone XL.
"Its going to take a lot more Americans if Obama is going to say 'No'" to Keystone, Mr. Barrows said.
Before winning his second term, President Barack Obama delayed the decision on the politically fraught issue and it now seems to have slipped again, perhaps until next year.
Meanwhile expensive efforts by both sides continue more than five years after TransCanada first applied for a permit and nearly eight years since the Keystone pipeline to funnel oil sands to tidewater was first envisioned.
Environmental groups like the Sierra Club, 350.org and the National Resources Defense Council have been joined by clusters of local landowners in several states. Lawsuits have been filed, celebrities such as Robert Redford have lined up against Keystone and billionaire activist Tom Steyer has vowed to spend heavily on campaigns against the oil sands.
"Tar sands oil is exactly the type of dirty oil we can no longer afford," Mr. Redford said in a widely-watched YouTube video this week. "It may be great for oil companies, but it is killing our planet."
By contrast, Canada's Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, in a barely-noticed speech in New York City, touted Canada's record on cutting emissions from coal-fired plants as better than the United States's. Mr. Oliver and a succession of provincial premiers have repeatedly tried to promote Keystone XL as a job-creating, secure source of oil for America.
Public opinion polls still show a clear majority of Americans back building Keystone XL, but as high-profile protests continue that support may shift.
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama, who has staked part of his presidential legacy on leaving the planet a cleaner place, has set a high bar for approving Keystone XL. In a June speech, he said "our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."