Updated Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 10:46 PM
Climate activists descended on Washington, D.C., on Sunday in what organizers boasted was the largest climate-change rally in American history, claiming more than 35,000 participants.
The Forward on Climate rally, as it was billed by environmental groups Sierra Club and 350.org, called for President Obama to take immediate action on climate change, with many urging the government to block construction of the oil pipeline known as Keystone XL.
Protesters marched through the streets bearing placards and massed on the National Mall, where speakers addressed the crowd. Washington police declined to provide a crowd estimate.
Keystone XL has been a signature issue for climate activists.
They caught policymakers and the pipeline industry off guard with protests in 2011 against the proposed pipeline, which would bring so-called tar-sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to refineries around Houston and the Gulf of Mexico, replacing Venezuelan heavy crude with similar Canadian grades.
Opponents believe the process to produce and refine tar-sands oil would be more carbon intensive than typical oil production, potentially accelerating climate change.
Although other proposed pipelines in the U.S. would shunt larger amounts of oil around the country, the proposed TransCanada project must pass through a legal bottleneck in order to be built: U.S. law requires federal approval for new pipelines crossing international borders, making the pipeline more vulnerable to concentrated political pressure.
For many rally leaders, the first test will be whether the president and Secretary of State John Kerry approve a construction permit for the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Kerry’s first meeting with a foreign leader was with Canada’s foreign minister, John Baird, on Feb. 8. They discussed the Keystone pipeline project, among other subjects, and Kerry promised a fair, transparent and prompt decision.
He did not indicate what recommendation he would make to the president.
Many of the demonstrators were college students who had traveled for hours by bus to take part in the rally.
Groups opposing coal production, fracking for natural gas and nuclear power were prominent; separate groups of Baptists and Catholics, as well as an interfaith coalition, and groups from Colorado, Toronto and Minneapolis joined the throng.
Speakers included Bill McKibben, an author and Middlebury College professor who has led the fight to stop the pipeline; two leaders of First Nation tribes in Canada; and Tom Steyer, an investment fund manager in California and major fundraiser for Obama. All are strong foes of the Keystone project.
Proponents say its approval would be an important step toward reducing reliance on the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries for energy. Opponents say the expansion of oil production in shale fields across the country has already reduced the need for imports.
The State Department appeared poised to approve the pipeline in 2011, but Obama delayed a decision based on concerns about its route through vulnerable grasslands in Nebraska.
The pipeline company, TransCanada, submitted a revised route, and the governor of Nebraska approved the plan last month, sending the final decision to Washington.
The amount of Canadian oil the United States imports daily — 2.4 million barrels, roughly twice what it imports from Saudi Arabia — points up a cornerstone of Obama’s goal to decrease dependence on oil from the unstable Middle East and unreliable sources like Venezuela. The Keystone pipeline would increase Canadian oil imports by more than 700,000 barrels a day, the equivalent of roughly two-thirds of Venezuelan imports.
Canada has powerful allies in the U.S. labor movement, which is pushing for the pipeline because it would generate an estimated 30,000 jobs, and in big oil companies like Exxon Mobil and Chevron that are heavily invested in the oil sands fields.
Canada has invested more than $100 billion in the oil sands over the last 10 years, shifting economic and political power westward to Alberta. Production is tied to 75,000 jobs nationwide, a number that is expected to multiply over the next 25 years, and nearly all of the country’s oil exports go to the United States.
Compiled from the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The New York Times
Manuel Balce Ceneta / The Associated Press
Thousands of protesters gather Sunday at the National Mall in Washington, calling on President Obama to reject the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada.