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The president might be on vacation, but that hasn’t stopped environmental activists from protesting outside the White House. The crowd has been assembled since Aug. 20 in an attempt to raise awareness about the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. The demonstrators are fighting against the pipeline because oil from tar sands emits more carbon than normal oil, thereby contributing that much more to climate change.

The pipeline, proposed by the Canadian energy company TransCanada, would cost $7 billion and would stretch 1,700 miles south from the Alberta tar sands to Texas refineries. It would carry as much as 900,000 barrels of oil a day, doubling U.S. imports of Canadian crude. The proposed pipeline, scheduled for completion in 2013, would supplement the existing Keystone pipeline — which has already leaked several times in its one year of use.

The oil from the tar sands is particularly controversial because it has a carbon output 20 percent higher than conventional oil supplies. The State Department is finalizing an environmental impact statement on the proposal, which is expected this month, and they will issue a decision by the end of the year.

For the construction of the pipeline to begin, Obama would have to sign a certificate of national interest since it crosses the border. Congress is not involved in this measure, giving environmentalists more hope that they can effect change without dealing with climate change-skeptical politicians.

In an Aug. 16 Washington Post op-ed, organizer Bill McKibben wrote that more than a thousand people had signed up to be arrested during the two weeks of protests. He outlined the protesters’ goals, writing,

We have, not surprisingly, concerns about potential spills and environmental degradation from construction of the pipeline. But those tar sands are also the second-largest pool of carbon in the atmosphere, behind only the oil fields of Saudi Arabia.…For now, the Keystone pipeline is the best proxy we have for real presidential commitment to the global warming fight.

McKibben is one of more than 220 protesters who have been arrested for sitting in front of the White House. Demonstrators plan to come in waves during the two-week protest, with another 1,800 people promising to join. The biggest day of action is planned for Saturday.

The fossil fuel industry has fought back and is trying to convince the president to approve the pipeline. Given Alberta’s remote location, the Keystone XL pipeline is essentially the only viable route — meaning that if the president doesn’t approve, the oil will most likely stay in the ground.

The protesters will be waiting for the president upon his return from Martha’s Vineyard, urging Obama to take a stand for the environment. For now, the future of the Keystone XL pipeline is uncertain.

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