WASHINGTON — Environmental activists in Nebraska waved handmade signs urging Secretary of State John Kerry to “remember your climate legacy.” In Amherst, protesters signed postcards reminding the former Massachusetts senator of his 2007 promise to put the “next generation’s world” above “bloated profits for Big Oil.” And from outside the White House came a chant for Kerry to “stop this pipeline.”
The candlelight vigils, among 280 held this week, are intended to ratchet up pressure on Kerry as he approaches a defining moment for his environmental legacy: whether to recommend approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Kerry’s voice will be the most important thus far in one of the nation’s most epic environmental battles. He must recommend to President Obama whether the project is in the national interest. It is a pivotal moment for someone who has fashioned himself as a leading environmentalist throughout his political career.
Thousands of activists, sensing a last chance to block the project, are appealing not only to his conscience as an environmental advocate, but his own history of seeking to cap greenhouse gas emissions.
“We will be doing everything we can to plant this as an opportunity for the secretary to deliver a big win in the fight against climate change,” said Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director. “Rarely does any individual have an opportunity to make such a big impact.”
Last week, a State Department report suggested the pipeline carrying tar sands oil from Canada would not significantly add to global warming, a development seen by many as enhancing the odds that the pipeline will be approved.
Kerry has maintained silence on the pipeline so far, what he says is a strategy to avoid tipping his hand on an issue he has not officially been involved in until now.
The State Department declined this week to offer a timetable for his decision. There is no official deadline, although no action is expected for at least several months. Kerry will weigh environmental, cultural, and economic impacts, along with safety issues, energy security, foreign policy, and economic considerations.
Kerry is also waiting to hear the views of eight other federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy, which have up to 90 days to weigh in.
On Wednesday, the start of a 30-day public comment period, activists plan to flood the State Department with phone calls and e-mails outlining their objections. They regard the pipeline as a threat to the environment because turning the tar sands into usable fuel consumes three times as much energy as traditional oil production and uses a lot more water.
Refining tar sands would increase air pollution because an end product that is burned in power plants releases more carbon dioxide than burning coal, they contend. They fear a spill along the route also could contaminate drinking water.
The 1,700-mile Keystone pipeline, which environmentalists have fought for more than four years, would transport tar sands crude from Alberta, Canada, to Gulf Coast refineries. The most controversial portion — 875 miles called Keystone XL — would extend from Canada through South Dakota to Steele City, Neb.
Friday’s State Department report indicated that approval or denial of the Keystone XL proposal is unlikely to significantly affect the rate of extraction in the oil sands because the Canadians would build other pipelines and rail terminals to satisfy world demand.
Supporters of the pipeline, including the oil industry, say that it would create jobs and bring energy security, reducing the country’s reliance on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Canada, the United States’ most important trade partner, sees the pipeline as vital to its economy.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, on Tuesday urged immediate approval of the pipeline. He held up the State Department’s report as confirming that “there is no reason, scientific or otherwise, for delaying the Keystone pipeline one more day.”
An unprecedented 1.5 million comments were submitted to the State Department following its draft environmental impact report last March, a record activists now hope to surpass.
The Energy Action Coalition, which organizes young voters across college campuses, plans to hold a demonstration outside the State Department this month to hand-deliver comments to Kerry.
Kerry’s environmental advocacy extends back to his days as Massachusetts lieutenant governor, when he emerged as a national figure in the fight against acid rain.
As a new senator, Kerry pressed for giving states more authority over offshore oil drilling, for higher automotive fuel efficiency standards, for stricter controls over nuclear energy facilities, and for global limits on fishing.
In 2009, Kerry proposed legislation that would have established a cap-and-trade system on US emissions of greenhouse gases. The bill failed. In 2012, Kerry voted against legislation that would have made it easier to build the Keystone pipeline by eliminating the need for a federal permit to cross the US-Canadian border.
“There’s really no one who has devoted more of his life’s work to addressing climate change than Secretary Kerry over many decades,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters. “He has such a longstanding position of leadership and has done the right thing for so long. It could not be more important for him to get this right.”
Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who also opposes the pipeline, said he will be calling Kerry shortly to discuss his environmental concerns, with which he says Kerry is intimately familiar.
“The issue is now in the lap of the Secretary of State John Kerry,” Sanders said in an interview. “Given his pronouncements when he was senator, I think it’s a no-brainer to suggest that this pipeline should not go forward.”
Landowners along the pipeline route in Nebraska have turned hand-painted billboards against the pipeline into postcards to the State Department, and are prepared to stage a demonstration on the National Mall.
More than 75,000 activists have already signed pledges to risk arrest in a massive wave of civil disobedience in a last-ditch effort to stop the pipeline if Kerry gives the go-ahead.
“This is just the beginning of the final push,” said George Aguiar, who is on the steering committee of Climate Action NOW, a Chicopee-based Massachusetts environmental group.
On Monday night, Aguiar joined more than 100 activists on the snowy Amherst Town Common for speeches, songs, and poetry arguing against the pipeline.
Activists contend that approving the pipeline would undermine Kerry’s and the country’s credibility among world leaders as the State Department negotiates an international climate agreement.
“I don’t think anyone will take what we say seriously if it isn’t coupled with the willingness to at least occasionally say no to the Koch brothers and others backing this pipeline,” said Bill McKibben, a leading environmental activist whose global climate group, 350.org, helped spearhead the nationwide rallies.
McKibben, who spoke at a New York City rally in Union Square Monday night, recalled, as a child, watching Kerry lead hundreds of protesters, including McKibben’s father, against the Vietnam War on the Lexington Green in Massachusetts.
But Kerry has remained a cipher on the pipeline issue, McKibben said. “In the Senate he’s said all the right things and voted all the right ways, but he’s never had a chance to exercise real authority and now he has it,” he said. “It will be a great and interesting gut check.”Tracy Jan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeTracyJan.