A tepee encampment – with Nebraska ranchers helping Plains Indians set it up – now commands the Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument as the latest anti-Keystone XL protest staked a claim Tuesday inside the Beltway.
No matter that President Barack Obama left town to mend fences in Asia and Vice-President Joe Biden is in Kiev to show solidarity against Russia's meddling in Ukraine, the so-called CIA (Cowboy and Indian Alliance) plans a five-day anti-pipeline demonstration, replete with a special tepee painted for the President.
"We have stopped the pipeline in its tracks for the last five years and we will keep fighting until it is finally rejected," Jane Kleeb, whose grassroots group Bold Nebraska has been more successful in thwarting TransCanada Corp.'s $5.5-billion plan to funnel Canadian oils sands crude to Texas refineries than any other.
Last week, Mr. Obama delayed a decision – for the second time – effectively pushing it back beyond the critical midterm elections in November, just as he earlier delayed a decision in the months before he won a second term in 2012.
While Keystone XL opponents – mostly environmentalists, First Nations and a minority of landowners along the route – rejoiced while the Canadian government and TransCanada railed over the latest delay, the long-planned demonstration on the Mall will go ahead. In Nebraska, court action has also stalled the project.
"Historically, cowboys and Indians have been at odds,–but no more," said Ben Gotschall, a fourth-generation Nebraska rancher. "That shared bond proves that we pipeline fighters are not just a few angry landowners holding out or environmentalists pushing a narrow agenda."
Although Tuesday's demonstration attracted only a few hundred protesters, organizers say the size and scope of the anti-Keystone XL events will grow during the week. Large-scale civil disobedience events are expected later in the week – probably Thursday – along with marches on the various government agencies involved in the ongoing review of the pipeline.
"This isn't just about Keystone, this is about stopping all tar sands development," said Dallas Goldtooth, a Sioux from Minnesota. He said it was important that Canadian First Nations know that their counterparts south of the border remain committed to blocking pipelines to export Canadian oil sands, which are seen as crucial to massive expansion of Alberta's vast reserves.
"We stand in solidarity with our Cree and Dene brothers in Alberta," Mr. Goldtooth said after the opening ceremonies on the Mall. "Even if Keystone is cancelled, we won't stop until we stop all the tar sands mining."
Anyone opposing Keystone XL will be invited to add their hand or thumbprint to the special ceremonial tepee being painted for the President.
"Blocking Keystone is a huge victory, but there will be other fights," Mr. Goldtooth said.
Along with the tepees, there was a covered wagon at the encampment on the Mall. Several dozen tribal leaders, some mounted, and ranchers opened the "Reject and Project" event.
Pro-Keystone XL groups were unimpressed.
The "opening ceremony for this week's Keystone XL protests has to be disappointing for activists given the small turnout – especially since its Earth Day," said Matt Dempsey, a spokesman for Oil Sands Fact Check. "Despite the media hype, Keystone XL opponents are clearly losing momentum," he said in a statement e-mailed to the media.
Mainstream environmental organizations are expected to add their supporters for a rally on Saturday although – despite extravagant claims in the past that tens of thousands rallied against Keystone XL – the number of protesters has usually been far less.
"We want the President to see our faces," Ms. Kleeb told Tuesday's opening rally.
She said it was important that Mr. Obama understand the opposition of ordinary people who live along the pipeline's route and not just be exposed to the heated political debate in Washington.
TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said the encampment on the Mall did not reflect the views of most landowners along the route. "It is really unfortunate that some of these activists are trying to make this an us-versus-them debate" when in some states there are no outstanding disputes with landowners and in "Nebraska, where the pipeline route recently changed, already 79 per cent of landowners have agreed to terms."