WASHINGTON - A visual snapshot of the rowdy American debate over the Keystone XL pipeline played out Thursday on one of the world's most famous stages.
A couple of dozen people noisily protested the pipeline, and an assortment of news cameras followed them around. One or two project supporters heckled them. In the meantime, hundreds wandered past â€” some of them curious, others indifferent, and many apparently oblivious to the cause of the ruckus.
It all happened between the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and the famous reflecting pool on Washington's National Mall. Protesters had been promising an act of civil disobedience during demonstrations this week, and they speculated there might even be some arrests.
In the end, protesters left without incident, after a couple wandered into the water â€” which is not allowed. Police kept an eye on the group, but issued only a verbal warning, and let everyone leave.
Two protesters who stepped into the pool between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument carried a banner saying: "Standing in the water could get me arrested. TransCanada (Corp.) pollutes drinking water and nothing happens."
It was like a microcosm of the entire Keystone discussion.
A new public-opinion poll issued this week suggested the pipeline was more popular than ever â€” with 61 per cent support from likely U.S. voters. The same Rasmussen poll of 1,000 Americans found 27 per cent opposed.
But the project has been stalled by the energetic effort of activists in Nebraska and in the ranks of of the Democratic party. It now appears unlikely Keystone would be approved before next year, if at all.
One of the protesters on hand Thursday was a junior member of Obama's own transition team and a former Democratic congressional staffer. Wizipan (Garriott) Little Elk served as Obama's liaison to aboriginal peoples in 2008.
"Let's not capitulate to multinational corporations and their greed," he said. The event was part of a week-long demonstration by a group of landowners and aboriginal groups, who have dubbed themselves the "Cowboys and Indians Alliance."
Little Elk was dismissive when asked whether the thousands of construction jobs might warrant an approval: "They're going to create, maybe, 30 permanent jobs? I run a corporation for our tribe and we've created 22 jobs over the last two years."
As the crowd approached the water, there was a bit of an argument in the background.
A man shouted: "We want the pipeline!" When a protester asked him to leave, he refused. Many bystanders quietly walked past. Some stopped to watch or take pictures â€” including Matt Dempsey, who works for an oil-industry group.
"It's not surprising there weren't too many people that actually showed for this event today," Dempsey said.
"There's overwhelming bipartisan support across the country for Keystone XL. So when you have a handful of protesters show up in Washington, D.C., on a beautiful day â€” I think it shows that the opponents are clearly losing momentum in their opposition to Keystone XL."
He also took exception to Little Elk's claim that the oil would end up being sold entirely on foreign markets, although proponents of the project can't say how much of the oil would stay in the country.
The Keystone debate raged on this week, in other forums.
The alumni association at University of California-Berkeley trumpeted a study challenging a main argument of project supporters, including the Canadian government and the oil industry. They have used a key finding from U.S. State Department reports to bolster their case: that the oilsands will grow, with or without Keystone, so it would be better to have lower-polluting pipelines transport the oil than higher-polluting rail.
But the study suggests one billion barrels are at stake in the Keystone debate â€” that's how much less will be extracted from Canada's oilsands by 2030 if the project doesn't get built, it concludes.
The report by Maximilian Auffhammer, an economics PhD and associate professor at Berkeley of agricultural and resource economics, concludes the industry would start facing serious bottlenecks by 2024 without Keystone being completed.
TransCanada says the delay in approval has cost them a fortune. Meanwhile, the anti- and pro-Keystone sides in the U.S. have used the debate to send out countless fundraising letters.
As if to underscore that it's not always personal, Dempsey and one of the climate-change activists briefly shared a playful man-hug at the end of Thursday's protest.