More than 1,250 opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline were arrested at the White House over the last two weeks in what has been described as one of the largest environmentally-minded acts of civil disobedience in recent history.

Among those taken into custody were 70-year-old NASA scientist James Hansen and well-known author and environmental activist Bill McKibben, who was arrested on Aug. 20 and spent three days in jail.

After his release, McKibben wrote in Mother Jones that the protest accomplished two things: it thrust the debate over the 1,700-mile pipeline onto the national stage, and it “helped make it clearer that President Obama should be the focus of anti-pipeline activism” (Obama is being asked to sign a permit for the project because the pipeline crosses the U.S.-Canada border).

Barack Obama has the power to stop it, and no one in Congress or elsewhere can prevent him from doing so. That means—and again, it couldn’t be simpler—that the Keystone XL decision is the biggest environmental test for him between now and the next election. If he decides to stand up to the power of big oil, it will send a jolt through his political base, reminding the presently discouraged exactly why they were so enthused in 2008.

The fate of the $7 billion project continues to hang in the balance despite the mounting opposition. In a review released on Aug. 26, the U.S. State Department declared the pipeline posed limited environmental hazards. Top U.S. officials have already voiced support for the project as a way to reduce reliance on oil less stable and friendly states in the Middle East.

The demonstrations against the pipeline are likely to pick up in the coming months, however.

On Sept. 24, McKibben’s is sponsoring a global day of action, Moving Planet, calling for a transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. Tar Sands Action, the group that organized the White House sit-in, is hinting at a second wave of action. And protests are also being planned for Oct. 7, the day congressional leaders are scheduled to hold their final hearings on the Keystone XL proposal.

For McKibben, the movement rising up against the pipeline is drawing parallels to the civil rights era. Writing after his arrest, he drew on the experience of Martin Luther King Jr., whose peaceful protests eventually undid the country’s codified racial injustices.

We may not be facing the same dangers Dr. King did, but we’re getting some small sense of the kind of courage he and the rest of the civil rights movement had to display in their day—the courage to put your body where your beliefs are.

We all know how the civil rights story ended. The question now: how will it end for those standing up against Keystone XL?

Photo Courtesy Josh Lopez.

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