Obama Pittsburgh visit gets cool reception from environmentalists | Slag Heap

Obama Pittsburgh visit gets cool reception from environmentalists

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Nikki Luke remembers what it meant to support to Barack Obama in 2008. The 19-year-old University of Pittsburgh student interned for him in Southern Virginia, knocking on doors, working on get-out-the-vote campaigns and making phone calls.

"I believed him when he said we'd be the generation that frees the country from the tyranny of big oil," she said while awaiting the President's arrival on the South Side this morning.

But while Luke was holding a flag with the Obama symbol on it, she wasn't standing at a campaign rally. She was among about 100 others protesting today along Hot Metal Street, where Obama was visiting the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers training center, touting his jobs plan.

And as the presidential motorcade passed down Hot Metal Street, protesters shouted "Obama yes, pipeline no. that's the way it's gotta go." 

As City Paper previously reported, the rally was called in opposition to what's called the Keystone XL Pipeline, a proposed 1,700-mile pipeline from Alberta, Canada to Texas to transport crude oil from Canada's tar sands. Many of the protesters were students, in town for Association of Sustainability in Higher Education, some as far as away as Alberta and British Columbia.

Pipeline opponents -- including Tar Sands Action and the Pittsburgh Student Environmental Coalition, who helped organize the rally -- say that the mining of the tar sands is environmentally devastating. Burning the oil once it's extracted, they warn, will greatly increase our emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gasses that cause climate change. Activists also fear leaks and spills along the planned pipeline route through the American Midwest.

The extraction process for the oil, says protestor Seth Bush, is as dangerous as the controversial "fracking" process of the Marcellus Shale natural gas deposits. "It's crappy, crude oil," he says. "It's so viscous and it's treated with all kinds of chemicals."

For Bush, the pipeline protest is "symbolic of a whole range of issues."

"This is symbolic for fracking, this is symbolic for climate change," he says. "We need to bring up this social movement and get public pressure"

The U.S. State Department is mulling over the pipeline proposal, but Obama has the authority to reject the project. His decision, the protesters say, will ultimately define how much support he receives from them in the 2012 election.

"We're not going to work our asses off for him if he approves this!" one protestor shouted at the end of the rally. Luke, one of the event's organizers, says that while Obama "might still be able to get the environmental vote" if he supports the pipeline, he'll lose the grassroots efforts that made his campaign so successful in 2008. "He won't have our support as interns and doorknockers," she predicts.

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