Courtney Hight told herself not to cry as police handcuffed her outside the White House. “I knew I was doing the right thing,” she said. “So I did not cry.”

On a cloudy day last month Hight, a former member of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, took a huge career risk and joined more than 1,200 protesters who were demanding that President Obama deny a building permit for Keystone XL, a planned oil pipeline that would stretch from Alberta, Canada, to Texas.

The project, the protesters say, threatens to poison ground water across the heartland and extend America’s reliance on climate-changing fossil fuels.