The Keystone XL pipeline and climate change drew fresh scrutiny from youth in downtown Missoula on Tuesday. 

“The reason we’re here to do this is because we’ve got no good senators,” Dan Carlino, a University of Montana student, told about a dozen demonstrators. 

This past year, young people have demonstrated in cities across Montana and around the world to demand action on climate change. Tuesday’s activists — mostly students at UM, Hellgate High School and Lewis and Clark Elementary — were headed to the offices of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, to voice their opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.

If built, Keystone XL would carry oil from Canadian oil sands nearly 1,200 miles, through Alberta, Saskatchewan, Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, where it would link up with existing pipelines. Its owner, TC Energy (formerly TransCanada) is preparing to start construction sometime next year.

The proposal has been scrutinized, debated and litigated for over a decade, with supporters describing it as a boost for the U.S. economy and energy supply, and opponents focusing on fossil fuel development’s impact on climate change, the risk of a potential spill, and the prospect of male oil workers committing violent crimes against Native American women.

Both of Montana’s U.S. Senators currently support the project — and that was what Tuesday’s protest, organized by local members of the nonprofit environmental group Sunrise Movement, aimed to change.

“We just want to make our message clear that we want Jon Tester to stop supporting the Keystone Pipeline,” Matthew Giacone told Tester’s staff once the group had squeezed into the senator’s Front Street office. While group members unfurled banners denouncing the pipeline and the senators’ support for it, Giacone read out a letter reiterating their concerns, and noting that another pipeline, Keystone, also owned by TC Energy, recently leaked about 9,000 barrels of oil in North Dakota.

“If you do stand with and care for all Montanans, then stop supporting the KXL pipeline,” he read. Giacone, a Sunrise Movement member and environmental studies major at UM, has recently been charged with committing aggravated assault; he said his actions were in self-defense.

Tester’s regional director, Deborah Frandsen, listened to their concerns and collected contact information from the group. They also dropped off a pledge to not accept campaign contributions over $200 from the fossil fuel industry for the senator to sign.

Carlino, another local Sunrise Movement member and UM student, had asked Tester to take this pledge at a public town hall in Missoula over this summer; Tester denounced the influence of money in politics but did not commit to signing a pledge. “If you can’t get your message out you’re screwed,” he told Carlino at the time. “That’s just the way it is.”

Five months later, Carlino — also currently running for Montana Public Service Commission as a Democrat — remains skeptical. Tester’s support for Keystone XL, he surmised, is “because of all the money in his pocket.” (Other PSC District 4 Democratic candidates are Brett Rosenberg and Monica Tranel; Republicans are Webb Scott Brown and Will Deschamps.)

In a statement emailed from a spokesperson, Tester said, “I’ve always said the Keystone pipeline should adhere to the highest safety standards, respect tribal sovereignty, and preserve private property rights before it can get the green light. I appreciate folks making their voices heard, and my door is always open.”

At least this Tuesday, the protesters did not find an open door at Daines’ office — a sign said staff “are often out in the field serving the people of Montana.”

In an email, Daines spokesperson Julia Doyle described the Sunrise Movement as a “radical, Democrat organization” (The national organization has so far endorsed three Democrats in Congressional races and two members of the Working Families Party in a Philadelphia City Council race, and it accepts donations through Democratic- and progressive-supporting technology group ActBlue).

She noted the pipeline’s lengthy review process and potential economic benefits, and wrote that “the Senator has long been supportive of moving forward with construction for the Keystone XL as it’s critical for Montana jobs and our American energy independence. The senator believes it’s long overdue that this project is in motion.”

One of the demonstrators, Mica Kantor, doesn’t plan to let Daines or Tester off the hook. The fifth-grader at Lewis and Clark Elementary had come with his father, Isaac, and plans to write both senators about the issue.

He’s deeply concerned about both the pipeline and climate change. “I just want to keep protesting,” he said.

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