Bill McKibben gets arrestedBill McKibben gets arrested in front of the White House.Photo: Shadia Fayne Wood/Tar Sands ActionCross-posted from It’s Getting Hot in Here.

Seventy people from across the U.S. and Canada were arrested in front of the White House Saturday morning on the first day of a two-week sit-in aimed at pressuring President Obama to deny the permit for a massive new oil pipeline. More than 2,000 additional people are expected to join the daily civil disobedience over the coming days.

At stake is what has quickly become the largest environmental test for Obama before the 2012 election: The president must choose whether or not to grant a Canadian company a permit to build a 1,700-mile pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.

Environmentalists warn that the pipeline could cause a BP disaster right in America’s heartland, over the largest source of fresh drinking water in the country, the Ogallala Aquifer. The nation’s top climatologist, James Hansen, has warned that if the Canadian tar sands are fully developed, it could be “game over” for the climate.

“It’s not the easiest thing on earth for law-abiding folk to come risk arrest. But this pipeline has emerged as the single clear test of the president’s willingness to fight for the environment,” said environmentalist and author Bill McKibben, who is spearheading the protests and was arrested this morning. “So I wore my Obama ’08 button, and I carry a great deal of hope in my heart that we will see that old Obama emerge. It’s hot out here today, especially when you’re wearing a suit and tie. But it’s nowhere near as hot as it’s going to get if we lose this fight.”

McKibben was amongst those arrested today, along with NRDC co-founder and former White House official Gus Speth, gay rights activist Lt. Dan Choi, author and activist Mike Tidwell, Firedoglake founder Jane Hamsher, and many others.

Environmentalists say that the president’s failure to take any substantive steps to protect the environment and stop the climate crisis has left his base disheartened and desperate. While the president can blame Congress for the failure to pass a climate bill, the decision on whether to grant a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline is his and his alone.

The protest began with a small rally in Lafeyette Park, where participants listened to McKibben address the crowd and prepared themselves for what would likely be an afternoon in jail. At about 11:00 a.m., the group formed two lines and marched to the White House fence to the applause of onlookers. A group of participants lined the fence, holding two large banners that read “Climate Change Is Not in Our National Interest: Stop the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline” and “We Sit In Against the Keystone XL Pipeline. Obama Will You Stand Up to Big Oil?” The rest of the group sat-in on the sidewalk in front of the fence.

Within a few minutes, police began issuing warnings to clear the area. At 11:30 a.m., a young woman from Sarah Palin’s hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, was the first person to be arrested. Arrests proceeded for over an hour as van-loads of protestors were taken away from the White House.

Jane Kleeb, an outspoken opponent of the pipeline and founder of BOLD Nebraska, stood in Lafayette Park this morning and cheered on the protestors as they were arrested.

“Nebraskans are counting on President Obama to do the right thing,” said Kleeb, who is planning to risk arrest on Monday with a delegation of farmers and ranchers who are coming in from Nebraska. “Back home we are fighting to protect our land and water. We decided to bring that fight to the president’s doorstep because our families’ legacies, those that homesteaded the very land now threatened by a foreign oil company, are too important for us sit on the sidelines. We are acting on our values and expect our president to act as well.”

The coalition organizing the protest, Tar Sands Action, is seeking donations and more volunteers to participate in the sit-in throughout the next two weeks. For more information, visit tarsandsaction.org and follow the group on Twitter at @tarsandsaction.

Editor’s note: Bill McKibben serves on Grist’s board of directors.