WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A coalition of environmental groups plans to stage a rally against "Big Oil's corruption" on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, hours before President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to the U.S. Congress.
Days after the White House handed them a victory by halting the Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL oil pipeline, environmental activists are stepping up attacks on U.S. lawmakers seen as too close to oil and gas companies.
A coalition of green groups promises hundreds of protesters
dressed as referees who will "blow the whistle" on lawmakers who have received campaign contributions from oil companies. The coalition did not give names or party affiliation of the lawmakers they would target.
The rally is organized by groups including 350.org, which staged large protests against the Keystone pipeline, including one that encircled the White House late last year to protest the project that would sharply boost oil production from Canada's energy-intensive tar sands.
The Obama administration last week rejected TransCanada's pipeline after Congress inserted language in tax legislation requiring a decision on the project by the end of February. Obama had previously delayed making a decision until after the November 2012 elections.
Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, said the groups hope to keep environmental issues at the forefront of national conversations leading up to the elections.
"Look, I'm a Patriots fan, but if Bill Belichick was caught paying off the refs for the Super Bowl I'd be outraged and so would everyone else," McKibben said, referring to the head coach of the National Football League team. The New England Patriots will play the New York Giants in the league championship next month.
"So why, really, is it okay that congressmen take huge sums from companies and then vote on their interests?" he said in an email.
Environmentalists oppose the Keystone project because of the high greenhouse gas emissions from processing Alberta's tar sands and because the pipeline could threaten a Nebraska aquifer that is a major source of drinking water.
Environmental groups threatened to sit out the election if Obama approved the pipeline, adding to pressure on the Democratic president who faces a tough election in a struggling economy.
Republicans, who say the project would create jobs, see Keystone as a major election issue and have vowed to take further legislative steps to force approval of the project. The House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee will discuss Keystone in a hearing on Wednesday. [ID:nL1E8CK9D2]
Obama's re-election campaign released its first ad of 2012, challenging criticism of his energy record. [ID:nL1E8CJ75Y]
Jamie Henn, communications director for 350.org, said Keystone galvanized environmental activists. The groups, which also include the Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace and others, believe they can draw attention to other environmental issues during the campaign.
Protesting oil industry influence on Congress taps into election issues such as Occupy Wall Street protest movement's anger at perceived special treatment of corporations, concern about government subsidies and other spending, and controversy over "Super PACs" spending large amounts of money on electoral campaigns, Henn said.
"We've got some reports that people are buying referee outfits in districts too ... so I wouldn't be surprised to see some penalty flags get thrown at some members of Congress' offices," Henn said.
(Reporting By Emily Stephenson; editing by Mohammad Zargham)
(This story corrects organization name in 13th paragraph to "Natural Resources Defense Council" from "National")