Witnesses lined up early this morning at the State Deptartment to offer their views on a $7 billion pipeline project designed to carry up to 800,000 barrels of oil daily from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
On one side were representatives of the energy industry who say the project would produce thousands of construction jobs and reduce U.S. dependence on Middle East oil. The other included religious and environmental groups concerned that extracting oil in Canada’s northern boreal forest will accelerate climate change and harm the livelihood of First Nations people.
The project has raised sensitivities in both the U.S. and Canada as debates have revolved around the benefits of economic development and jobs in a deep recession and the long-term impact on climate change.
Because the 1,700-mile pipeline crosses an international border, the State Department is charged with recommending to President Barack Obama whether to sign off on a permit for the project or not. In August, the State Department cleared the way for construction in a report that found the project poses no serious threat to the environment and will enhance national security.
Obama’s decision is due by the end of the year. The White House has declined to say how he is leaning.
The hearing in Washington today was the last. Earlier hearings took place in Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, states through which the pipeline would pass.
A rally outside of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center near the White House took place as the hearing continued inside.
About 3,000 people cheered calls for stopping the project.
Bill McKibben, author, educator and environmental activist, credited the faith community for playing a growing role in the debate on the project.
In a brief interview after the rally, he told Catholic News Service that involvement by Catholics in the envirinomental movement is satisfying and he credited the Vatican for talking about the consequences of global warming.
“The Vatican has said some of the right things in recent years about climate change and it’s been nice to see,” he said. “It hasn’t been a very active thing for Catholics, but I think that’s changing.”
While the rally continued, Franciscan Father Jacek Orzechowski, parochial vicar of St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Md., was waiting to testify at the hearing. His testimony can be seen here and fast forward to the 1:45:00 mark.
Father Orzechowski told CNS he opposes the pipeline on moral grounds and that his faith and the words of Pope Benedict XVI are leading him to act.
“The science is clear that we must have drastic reductions in greenhouse gases,” said Father Orzechowski, representing the Franciscan Action Network, which addresses justice issues. “We have to do it quick in order to avert catastrophic consequences.”
Father Orzechowski was one of more than 1,200 people arrested outside of the White House for protesting the pipeline in a series of actions in late August and early September.
He also was one of six religious representatives who met Oct. 6 with Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs. Kathy McNeely, a staff member of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, was the other Catholic representative at the meeting.
Both stressed to Jones that the U.S. must invest in sustainable energy sources as a job creator rather than promote the continued use of fossil fuels.
Michelle Knight, of the Columban Fathers’ Center for Advocacy and Outreach, also was in line early hoping to testify. She told CNS she planned to address concerns about the dangers any potential oil spill would pose to the shallow Ogallala Aquifer, which provides irrigation and drinking
water to 2 million people in the central U.S.
“We’re all part of God’s creation and we need to protect God’s creation,” she said.