More than 50 demonstrators sit down in front of the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue while protesting against a proposed pipeline that would bring tar sands oil to the U.S. from Canada August 22, 2011 in Washington, D.C.
More than 50 demonstrators sit down in front of the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue while protesting against a proposed pipeline that would bring tar sands oil to the U.S. from Canada August 22, 2011 in Washington, D.C. - 

Jeremy Hobson: The State Department is expected to give its blessing as soon as today for a controversial oil pipeline. The Keystone XL would carry crude from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas.

But as Marketplace's David Gura reports from Washington, it's become a key issue for environmentalists.


David Gura: Environmentalists have organized two weeks of civil disobedience in Washington, protests in President Obama's front yard. I got to the White House yesterday, just before noon, and it was pouring rain. There were a few families, some tourists, but I didn't see any pipeline protesters.

Bill McKibben: They were probably in the paddy wagon.

That's Bill McKibben. He heads Tar Sands Action, the group that's organized the sit-in. More than 300 protesters have been arrested. McKibben says the U.S. should not allow the pipeline because of the heavy environmental toll of oil sands production.

McKibben: This is a really big deal, and President Obama could shut it down by himself -- and therefore do more than, far more than anything else he's done to usher in a new energy reality.

The Keystone XL is a pivotal issue for environmentalists who have endured a string of defeats in Washington. Last year, a major climate bill collapsed in Congress.

Scott Segal is an energy lobbyist. He says the environmentalists are too focused on symbolism, not real policy.

Scott Segal: The environmental community is using their opposition to the Keystone Pipeline as a cat's paw to strike at fossil fuel development wherever it occurs.

It's a tough fight against a project that would create thousands of jobs when unemployment is still high -- and we're heading into an election year. But McKibben hopes President Obama is listening.

McKibben: It's the rarest moment of unity for the environmental movement, and I guess in some ways, we'll find out if the environmental movement is strong enough to be heard at all inside the White House.

The administration will make a decision by the end of the year.

In Washington, I'm David Gura for Marketplace.

Follow David Gura at @davidgura