Nationwide Rallies Against Keystone XL Reach Virginia Suburbs

As Congress Takes Up Keystone XL Bill, Opponents Urge President Obama to Reject Pipeline
People gather at Dulles Town Center Mall to raise awareness about the Keystone XL pipeline
People gather at Dulles Town Center Mall to raise awareness about the Keystone XL pipeline

By Lee Stewart, Cetology

Sterling, VA – On January 14, a small crowd of people gathered suspiciously in the corridors of Dulles Town Center mall in Loudoun County, a Northern Virginia suburb of Washington, DC. They sat huddled in a circle, some looking anxiously over their shoulders as mall security kept careful watch, fearful, it seemed, of possible mischief. To the side was a disheveled pile of jackets barely concealing posters, signs, and even a miniature wind turbine that stuck out from underneath. One poster read “President Obama, Reject the Keystone Pipeline.”

It was obvious enough that these folks hadn’t come to the mall to shop. But neither had they come to protest, which, it turned out, was what mall security feared. They had come instead to hold a public vigil calling on President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, the controversial tar sands pipeline that, if approved, would transport some of the dirtiest crude oil on the planet from Alberta, Canada across the United States for export overseas. A bill to approve the pipeline is expected to reach Obama’s desk soon.

Leesburg resident Kelli Billips explained why she came to a vigil at the mall on a cold January night. “In an area of ravenous consumption,” she said, “we gathered to show our solidarity in resisting the KXL pipeline. Every person dedicated their time and energy to the places and people that will be affected by this senseless act of destruction. In a place of taking, we gathered to give.”

Scientists say the Keystone XL pipeline would be a large source of carbon pollution and seriously exacerbate climate change. A recently formed climate action group in Loudoun County, known as 350 Loudoun, responded to a national call for vigils across the country by hosting their own. A dozen people responded, showing up in front of Macy’s at 7 PM, signs in hand.

The signs had to go, however. Immediately upon arrival, mall security informed the group that if they didn’t put them away, police would be called. With expressions of reluctance and disappointment clearly on their faces, the unlikely gathering of pipeline resisters placed their signs in a pile and covered them with jackets.

Maria Bergheim reads a quote from a "frontline" pipeline fighter.
Maria Bergheim reads a quote from a “frontline” pipeline fighter/Photo by Connie Cota

Even without signs, however, the vigil went on. Sitting in a circle, participants took turns reading quotes from frontline farmers and indigenous leaders, all self-described “pipeline fighters,” who live along the proposed pipeline route. Maria Bergheim, another Leesburg resident, explained what it meant to her to stand in solidarity with frontline communities in the fight to stop the Keystone pipeline.

“I wanted to show up to stand with every landowner and non-landowner who is in the path of this KXL pipeline. By showing up, I am saying I care about our planet. Our government has no business allowing a pipeline through the US that would carry lethal oil across our precious lands. It would do nothing but further destroy our land, water and air. If we want to have a healthy planet we need to stop our dependence on fossil fuels and move to renewable energy now,” she said.

Al Kenneke of Oakland explained why the pipeline was relevant to him. “My concern is for my children and grandchildren and the larger community,” he said, “and Keystone is symbolic and substantive in terms of ending the [climate] crisis.”

Connie Cota holds her son's statement on the Keystone XL.
Connie Cota holds her son’s statement on the Keystone XL/Photo by Lee Stewart

Al wasn’t the only grandparent in the crowd. Connie Cota of Waterford risked bringing out her sign to tell everyone a story about Noah, her 4-year-old grandson. When the two of them were talking about the pipeline, he said something she couldn’t resist making into a poster. “Tell them to stop,” commanded Noah upon learning about the pipeline, “and if they don’t listen, tell them harder and meaner.”

As the vigil wound down, some of the participants discussed projects closer to home that, like the Keystone XL pipeline, would contribute to climate change. Lee Stewart of Aldie talked about Dominion Power’s  plans to expand a fracked gas compressor station in Leesburg. The station expansion would accommodate a liquified gas export facility that is currently under construction on the Chesapeake Bay. If completed, it would lead to increased methane emissions, a greenhouse gas many scientists say traps more heat in the atmosphere than CO2. The export facility would refine fracked gas from Pennsylvania and ship it to markets in India and Japan.

“Just like the Keystone pipeline,” said Lee, “fracked gas infrastructure in Virginia will only feed a broken system that places profits over people. We need to embody our love for community and place, and put a stop to these projects now.”

The unlikely gathering dissolved as quickly as it had formed, and few but mall security noticed. Those keeping a pulse on what’s going on in Loudoun County and the greater Northern Virginia area should take note, however, because things are changing in what had never before been a hotbed of activism and resistance. The silence around the climate crisis is beginning to break.

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