A report from the Keystone protest: This is what democracy looks like

On Friday, hundreds of activists turned out for a rally held during the final State Department public hearing on the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline project. Among these activists were folks that traveled from states that will bear the brunt of the impact from the proposed pipeline. They came to Washington D.C., on their own dime. They were joined by activists that just a month earlier were arrested as part of a two-week sustained demonstration in protest of the pipeline. Others in the crowd had spent the entire night outside of the hearing room just to ensure an early spot on the speaking list in an attempt to thwart line holders hired by industry.

I read in one account of the public hearing and the accompanying activities that supporters of the pipeline held a counterrally at the same time as the opposition rally. I didn’t witness the counterrally, but I can imagine what it looked like.

In addition to paying folks to stand in line to register pro-industry speakers, the oil industry also bused in employees and sympathetic union members. You could tell who they were because they all were sporting the same bright T-shirt. The numbers the industry turns out are impressive, but the enthusiasm for the cause usually is lacking. The directive is for them to be in the room. Often only a few provide public comments. And the message is honed: Jobs, Jobs, and Jobs.

In this case, the erroneous jobs statistic that is echoed by proponents is that 20,000 direct jobs and thousands more indirect jobs will be created by the Keystone XL project. But the job creation numbers were supplied by TransCanada, the corporation seeking approval to build the pipeline. In fact, the State Department’s own study suggests that far fewer jobs – no more than 6,000 direct jobs – will be created, and most of them will be non-local and temporary.

Fuzzy math, like bright T-shirts, is becoming another hallmark of the oil industry.

According to a recent article in The Washington Post, for more than a year, the American Petrolem Institute (API) has been highlighting the number of jobs it says are linked to the oil and gas industry.

But many economists say the API has exaggerated the number of jobs linked to the oil and gas industry by including direct and indirect jobs (such as steel suppliers), and a seldom-used category known as “induced” jobs that API says covers everything from valets to day-care providers, from librarians to rocket scientists.

Moreover, the single biggest category of people working directly for the petroleum industry is cashiers at gasoline stations and stations with convenience stores — 533,830 of them, according to the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet hardly any of those cashiers pump gas, check engines or inflate tires; mostly they ring up sales of snacks.

According to the Labor Department, their median hourly wage is a meager $8.68.

“As the old saying goes, statistics do not lie, but statisticians do,” Philip Verleger, an economist, consultant and retired professor of management at the University of Calgary’s business school told The Post. “The API is the best there is at lying with statistics.”

It  also is pretty good at filling a room, but it will continue to fall short on true activists who passionately stand behind their cause. At the end of the day, those are the people who commit to the long fight. Long after the pipeline issue is decided, they will continue to rail against corporate manipulation of our democratic process and the supremacy of corporate profit over public interest.

As the rally came to an end, I turned to see the Occupy D.C. group marching down 14th Street. Several of the rally attendees ran to join the march, while others gathered to head back into the public hearing. Each activist making the decision whether to participate within or outside the system to express the change they want to see – this is what democracy looks like.