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Greens vow mass protests if Obama OKs Keystone pipeline

As crews clean up spilled oil from a pipeline in Arkansas, environmental activists and others are using that spill and other incidents as fresh ammunition in their battle against the proposed Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline.

The leak from ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline, carrying the same Canadian oil sands that would be transported by Keystone, has forced the evacuation of more than 20 families in the small town of Mayflower. The company estimates that "a few thousands barrels of oil" were spilled in the area.

The incident comes at an especially bad moment for the oil and gas industry and other proponents of the Keystone pipeline. The project enjoys growing bipartisan support in Congress and is backed by a strong majority of the American people.

It also appeared that, after years of delay, President Obama was leaning toward approving the project after a recent, largely favorable environmental review from the State Department.

But now critics can point to the Mayflower spill and cleanup effort as an example of what can go wrong with large-scale pipeline projects. Not even 24 hours after the Friday afternoon spill, Keystone opponents began to make the connection.

"This latest toxic mess is just another reminder that oil companies cannot be trusted to transport toxic tar sands crude through Americans' backyards," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. "It's not a matter of if spills will occur on dangerous pipelines like the Keystone XL, but rather, when."

Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat and candidate for his state's open U.S. Senate seat, is making a similar argument.

"Whether it's the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, or this mess in Arkansas, Americans are realizing that transporting large amounts of this corrosive and polluting fuel is a bad deal for American taxpayers and for our environment," he said in a statement.

Some environmental groups are arguing that thick Canadian oil sands could pose unique dangers to pipelines due to faster corrosion and other factors.

The exact cause of the spill, ExxonMobil said, remains unclear and is under investigation. The company also says it has taken steps to ensure that no oil reaches nearby Lake Conway.

The Arkansas spill is the latest in a series of incidents raised by Keystone critics to demonstrate holes in both pipeline safety and other dangers associated with crude oil transport.

They're also pointing to last week's rupture of a Chevron Corp. pipeline in Utah; the derailment of a southbound train carrying Canadian oil sands through Minnesota last week; and numerous other incidents over the past few years.

Meanwhile, even before the Arkansas incident, Mr. Obama was set to again hear from the environmental movement.

Liberal activist group Credo, the Sierra Club and others have organized a protest in front of a Democratic Party fundraiser in San Francisco on Wednesday afternoon, an event the president is scheduled to attend.

Credo also has promised to mobilize more than 50,000 activists to engage in "civil disobedience" in front of government office buildings, outside banks financing the project and at other locations if Mr. Obama greenlights Keystone.

Support for the pipeline had been increasing both in Congress and among voters, though it remains to be seen whether that support erodes because of what's happened in Arkansas.

A March 28 Rasmussen survey found that 58 percent likely U.S. voters support building the pipeline, while just 26 percent are opposed to it. The poll also reported that, despite the demonstrations and protests of the environmental movement, the real passion lies on the pro-Keystone side of the debate.

One-third of likely voters "strongly favor" building the pipeline, while just 12 percent "strongly oppose" it, the survey shows.

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