Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and son Conor Kennedy were among 48 environmental activists arrested Wednesday after handcuffing themselves to the White House gate to protest the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline.
The protesters believe the proposed pipeline, which would carry oil pulled from Canadian tar sands to refineries in Texas, is a threat to the global climate.
"We think this is a decisive issue," Kennedy said in a telephone interview. The environmental lawyer cited James Hansen, who heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City: "If they build this, it's game over for the climate. If they unlock this Pandora's box, there will be no way we'll save the planet."
Also arrested with Kennedy of Bedford, who is president of the Waterkeeper Alliance and chief prosecuting attorney for Westchester-based Riverkeeper: Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, actress Daryl Hannah, civil rights leader Julian Bond and others.
Kennedy previously was served 30 days in jail in 2001 for trespassing as part of a protest against U.S. Navy bombing exercises on Vieques island in Puerto Rico.
"I try to avoid doing civil disobedience because I'm an officer of the court," he said following his release.
The protesters were demanding that President Barack Obama reject the $7 billion pipeline. Secretary of State John Kerry said a decision on granting a permit for the pipeline will be made soon. The State Department is involved because the project crosses international borders.
Protesters maintain that the fossil-fuel project would unleash greenhouse gases and accelerate global warming.
The 4-year-old project has become a flashpoint in the debate over climate change, with opponents labeling it a "carbon bomb" that could trigger global warming. Supporters call that rhetoric overblown and say Obama should approve the pipeline as part of his "all of the above" energy policy, which encourages a wide range of domestic energy development.
The son of slain presidential candidate Robert Kennedy said he was charged with failure to obey a lawful order to disperse and remained in jail for about five hours. He was fined $100, he said.
"The Capitol Police were amazing. They were courteous and kind and they got us out pretty quick," Kennedy said. "The last time I went to jail they said it would be three hours and it was 34 days."
Paul Gallay, president of Riverkeeper, said the acts of civil disobedience bring attention to an important issue.
"What my colleague Robert Kennedy, his son, and some of the others have done today is force attention to be paid to the climate," he said. "Everybody at Riverkeeper salutes Bobby and his family for that."
Gallay said the pipeline is unnecessary.
"What we're counting on is energy efficiency, more renewable and less emphasis on fossil fuels," he said. "We can power the future without increased dependence on fossil fuels."
Brune, arrested with RFK Jr., is the first Sierra Club leader in the group's 120-year history to be arrested in an act of civil disobedience.
Before his arrest, Brune said it was important that he engage in civil disobedience to show the depth of opposition to the pipeline among Sierra Club members. The club is the oldest and largest environmental group in the United States.
"We want to send a strong message that we expect the president's ambitions to meet the scale of the challenge and reject a pipeline that carries dirty, thick oil" that contributes to global warming, Brune said. The president's supporters want Obama to "fight with both fists" against climate change, Brune said.
Obama has called climate change a serious threat and urged Congress to combat the phenomenon in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night. If Congress fails to act, he will use executive authority to take steps to cut greenhouse gas pollution and encourage increased use of cleaner sources of energy, Obama said.
Obama has twice thwarted the Keystone XL pipeline because of concerns over its route through sensitive land in Nebraska, but has not indicated how he will decide on the pipeline now that Nebraska's governor has approved a new route.
With John Dyer and The Associated Press