Getting Action: The Keystone XL Series

On November 10 2011 President Obama announced that he was delaying making a final  decision on approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline designed to bring dirty tar sands oil from Alberta,Canada, to refineries in Texas. At the time of writing it is not clear what this may mean for the final outcome of the pipeline project, which now has to be subject to a new round of independent scrutiny for its environmental impacts. There are those who see this as a political maneuver which saves the President from having to make a difficult decision in what will inevitably be a tough election year.

There is no doubt, however, that this represents at least a partial victory for the thousands of US and Canadian citizens who came out and campaigned against Keystone. As Bill McKibben – a key figure in the campaign – wrote in Alternet after Obama announced he was postponing the decision, up until just a few weeks previously industry and political insiders were thinking the project was a shoo-in. At a time when economic crises and considerations overshadow everything else on the political agenda, the anti-Keystone campaigners managed to make a national headline issue out of an environmental news story, and have been credited with re-enlivening the green movement at a crucial time.

In a time in which effective campaigning on climate change has never been more urgent, the actions against the Keystone pipeline offer activists important lessons about thoughtful strategy, about building diversity, and about attracting young people and newcomers to environmental action.

As part of the Democracy Center’s ongoing effort to look deeper into climate action and other citizen campaigning, we published a series of interviews and reports about the Keystone campaign on our advocacy Blog, Getting Action. Together these posts (published below in reverse chronological order) offered insight into the strategies behind the scenes and lifted up the voices of some of the people who have been on the frontlines of the fight.

The Democracy Center Team

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Getting Action: Keystone XL campaigners circle in on Obama

Published November 8th 2011

by Ben Castle

It is a beautiful bright Fall day in Washington DC and the trees lining the White House grounds are displaying their full seasonal colours.  But today there are even brighter colours on display, with a sea of protesters wearing neon orange vests. This is presumably just for good measure, in case anybody fails to notice the striking spectacle of thousands of people surrounding the White House, holding banners and chanting. This is the latest in a series of high profile protests against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that, if built, would link the Alberta tar sands reserves in Canada with the Texas Gulf coast.

As the crowd assemble in Lafayette Park, just north of the White House, there is a playful, almost festive atmosphere. Ahead of the rally people are relaxing in the sun; music is being played by a band hidden somewhere in the throng.  There is even a life-sized, disconcertingly realistic polar bear, which people are queuing to have their photograph taken with.

Behind the seemingly jovial mood lies a very serious purpose to this gathering. Rosemary Haess, a 70 year old retiree from Upstate New York, explains that she felt compelled to make the journey on behalf of her grandchildren. “It’s not going to affect me long term,” she says. “I’ll be dead in 10 years’ time. There is nothing more urgent than the climate problem. We are too oil dependant and we need to live differently.” Rosemary also talks of how she campaigned for Obama at the last election and how “he made promises on climate change which he needs to keep.”


Nora Stresfield, a 21-year-old psychology student from Maryland, may represent the other end of the protest’s age spectrum but she shares Rosemary’s sentiment. “I’m here because I think it’s important we start to think about the long run not just the short run. Even if something saves us a little money now, how much will it cost us in the longer term, how much will it cost us in the future?”

19-year-old Liam Murphy, a student from Florida, carries a sign which reads ‘I wish my girlfriend was as dirty as Keystone XL’ which is received with mixed reactions from fellow protesters. For Liam, the pipeline simply “does nothing good for our country. It is terrible for the environment and the climate. It’s a no brainer that it should be turned down. I like him [Obama] but I don’t understand why he is even considering this.”

While the arguments against the pipeline may make it a ‘no brainer’ to many, it is still far from clear what Obama’s final decision will be. With the next election now only a year away, most people I speak with acknowledge that the President’s final decision is likely to be based more on cold calculations over the implications for votes, than the merits of particular arguments. With the economy at a standstill and national unemployment exceeding 9%, Obama could decide that being seen to reject a project with job creation benefits is too risky. This is being exploited by proponents of the pipeline who have been seeking to present the debate as classic environmental alarmism versus economic realism. TransCanada (the project developers) have made a series of highly inflated claims over how many jobs are likely to be created (see this report by Cornell University for a comprehensive rebuttal of the figures).

The attempt to characterise the protesters as an out of touch fringe group is countered by the wide range of stakeholders in attendance. During the day I meet people from across the US, representing various church and community groups, labor unions and Native American organizations, as well as national environmental bodies. One group of 400 individuals, with comedian and activist Dick Gregory among them, have travelled from Louisiana and neighbouring Gulf States. They have been spurred to action by the events surrounding last year’s BP oil spill and the continuing lack of compensation for those whose lives were impacted. They want to stop the proposed pipeline to help ensure such an event does not happen again. With so many groups represented it is little wonder the day’s main goal is a success: there are easily enough people to encircle the While House perimeter, which must measure over a mile.

One particularly important group within the coalition are those likely to be directly impacted by the routing of the pipeline. “I know that TransCanada have tried to make out that this is just environment groups that are worried about this,” says 32 year old Angel Romero, a community worker from Nebraska. “But this is not just environment groups – especially in Nebraska, we have farmers unions and many other groups and types of people involved. It is just not worth it to us if they ruin our land and ruin our water.” [See our last Getting Action installment for an interview with a Nebraska rancher – Ed]

There are signs that the participation of ‘ordinary folk’ from America’s mid-west is having an impact. Speaking to a Nebraskan TV channel last week President Obama confirmed he would make the final decision and sought to reassure that he understood people’s concerns, stating that “I think folks in Nebraska, like all across the country, aren’t going to say to themselves, ‘We’ll take a few thousand jobs if it means that our kids are potentially drinking water that would damage their health or rich land that’s so important to agriculture’”.  There are also indications that the decision on the pipeline may now be delayed until after the election, especially as an independent investigation is now expected in to the State Department’s handling of the permitting process and environmental impact assessment.

The strength of Nebraskan opposition perhaps demonstrates how for many Americans local environmental and justice issues can often be more tangible and motivating than longer-term concerns over climate change. From this perspective, the decision by climate campaigners (such as Bill McKibben) to focus so strongly on Keystone XL makes excellent strategic sense. While the pipeline decision represents a significant climate change issue in its own right, it is also able to attract opposition from a wider range of stakeholders. This marks out Keystone XL out as potentially major winnable battle in a far broader fight against climate change.

The shared opposition to corporate interests has attracted comparisons between Keystone XL and the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests. However, the narrow focus of the pipeline campaign is a strong distinguishing feature. Debate has raged over the need for OWS to identify policy goals, and indeed the prospects for such a diverse movement to agree on common objectives. In contrast, while Keystone XL protesters may come at the issue from different perspectives and emphasize different concerns, they have been able to coalesce around a single demand: to stop the building of the pipeline. The campaign also has a clear target: the President himself.

These features of the Keystone XL campaign may yet prove to be major advantages. However, they also represent a significant risk. With so much emphasis and effort focused on the pipeline, a go-ahead for the project could be hugely demoralizing for the climate movement.

Opinion at the demonstration is divided over the prospects for success. Some protesters have become increasingly confident as the campaign has gathered momentum over the last few months. Others are more cautious about getting their hopes up and still see the odds stacked against them.

Regardless of the final decision, many hope that the energy behind Keystone XL will go on to spur other climate change campaigns. “I hope this momentum will be spread more widely. People have come here from all over, from Nebraska and Texas all around US. So, I think this will be the beginning of more actions on climate change, which is the real issue,” says Layla Tachuo, a 37 year-old engineer from Virginia.

Well known author and supporter of the campaign Naomi Klein agrees, and believes these protests mark a significant shift in people’s engagement with the climate change threat.  “People are looking for ways to express their sense of urgency about this crisis. They don’t just want to change their light bulbs or buy a hybrid or trust the experts to do this. People want to take action to show that the earth is in the balance.” Klein also believes that the movement will adopt more direct approaches in future: “Many people here will be willing to escalate their tactics – whether that means blocking bulldozers if they do approve the pipeline, or on other issues. There is a new courage that has been found, similar to the OWS movement. It is not just about Keystone XL. This is about climate change and Keystone XL is the symbol. Everyone knows that if we stop this pipeline the climate crisis isn’t solved.”

The Keystone XL protests have already succeeded is making this decision much more than a rubber-stamping exercise for the State Department. Hopefully, it can also mark the emergence of a wider citizen-led movement against climate change. The success of the Keystone XL protests so far suggests that, in the absence of climate change becoming an election issue for many more voters, such a movement may need to succeed at reaching out and building coalitions with those campaigning on related social and environmental justice issues more locally.


About the author: Ben has previously worked as a researcher and advisor on UK and European climate change policy for a range of government agencies and think tanks. He holds an MSc in Climate Change and Development from the Institute of Development Studies and a BSc in Environmental Management and Policy from the London School of Economics. He currently lives and works in Washington D.C.


We look forward to hearing your thoughts on this piece in our comments section below. 



Getting Action: Keystone XL – Fighting on multiple fronts

Published November 4th 2011

by Shawn Arquíñego

On Thursday November 3rd President Obama signaled that he – and he alone – would be making the decision on whether or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline project. This came on the heels of a statement by press secretary James Carney earlier in the week implying that it would be the State Department, not the White House that would make the final call.

As the administration dithers about what part of the government will be taking responsibility for the decision, what’s clear is that the campaign against the XL pipeline is having a big impact nationally. This is due to the strength of grassroots movements within the United States as well as those working with indigenous communities in Canada that are directly affected by tar sands extraction in Alberta, Canada.

Following on from our interviews with founder Bill McKibben, and with young people in the US involved in the campaign, this latest installment of Getting Action brings in voices from the rancher community in Nebraska and the First Nations of Alberta. It asks what campaigns there are doing to generate popular support against the XL pipeline as well as tar sands extraction more generally.

Ben Gotschall – Bold Nebraska

Ben Gotschall was born and raised in the Sand Hills of southwest Holt County, Nebraska. He assists his family in running the family ranch and maintains his own cattle business. In May 2011, he began his work organizing on behalf of farmers and ranchers with Bold Nebraska and the Nebraska Farmers Union.




1. How has the campaign against the Keystone pipeline gone about winning support from average Nebraskans?

There’s a lot of tradition here in Nebraska, and when it comes to foreign corporations coming in and taking people’s land, tearing up the Sand Hills and endangering the aquifer, that doesn’t sit well with Nebraskans. While it might be primarily an environmental issue for a lot of people, the way most Nebraskans feel about this isn’t structured along the typical environmentalist line. It’s more about, “this is a place we like, this is a place we want to keep the way it is and if you’re not going to be polite about doing business with us in the state we’re not going to let you have access to it.” So we’re saying to TransCanada if you’re going to come here and think you’re going to live above the law, treat people poorly and act like you own the place, we’re going to fight you because that’s not what we stand for here.

2. How do you deal with support for the pipeline that comes from people who claim it will bring Nebraska needed jobs in hard economic times?

Well actually that’s kind of false. I think a lot of Nebraskans, maybe because of the nature of our fiscal conservatism, are actually doing pretty well. We have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the United States. One of the reasons for that is because we don’t take unnecessary risks. So the whole jobs thing isn’t as dire here in Nebraska as it is in other states. I understand that people need jobs. The question is how many and at what cost? For what looks to be maybe 100 or 200 jobs for Nebraskans for maybe 18 months, we’re going to endanger the Ogallala aquifer and tear up a portion of the Sand Hills, which has taken 10,000 years to become the way it is? When you weigh those two things together Nebraskans – in typical conservative, common sense logic – just say ‘well that’s not worth it.’ The drinking water in Lincoln and Omaha largely comes from rivers that are fed by springs and other rivers from the Sand Hills. Nebraskans are aware that what happens out west or what happens in the middle of the state affects us all. I understand that people need jobs but I think that we can make better decisions on other infrastructure needs that our country could use that wouldn’t jeopardize the drinking water of millions of people, that wouldn’t ruin land in the United States and Canada, and wouldn’t poison people along this pipeline route.

3.  What are the next steps in the campaign against the XL? What are local communities in Nebraska doing to gain more media attention?

Just last weekend we carved pumpkins and spelled out a message that read ‘91 leaks and zero regulation is scary. Please call a special session governor Heineman.’ We put those lit jack-o-lanterns on the steps of the capital and it was a pretty interesting image. Over 100 people came out and showed support for that [action]. We’ve done other public awareness things. We had what we called our ‘Stand with Randy’ campaign, which was based around a landowner named Randy Thompson who was standing up to TransCanada and not signing his easement with them. We just try to be creative about the events that we do and get people excited about it. Really the response from the public has been what generated most of the attention because they have taken the initiative, attended these events, and created their own networks. All we’ve done is have a few ideas and the citizens of Nebraska make them better by providing their own creative spin on things. So we’re not spending a lot of money, we’re spending a lot of time and brainpower.

4. How has the Bold Nebraska campaign been engaging local elected officials to build local opposition?

We’re kind of fighting this on two fronts. We’ve got the presidential, federal front where we’re asking for them to deny the permit.  Then we’ve got our state, local front where we’re calling a special session and trying to get laws in place that would keep pipelines out of our Sand Hills.

We just encourage our citizens to contact those local leaders and share what they’ve learned. We’ve always been willing to talk to anyone that wants to talk to us, but we’re not going to back down and sweep it under the rug if a state senator is neglecting his or her responsibilities. So we look at what they’ve said and look at how they’ve voted and we say ‘hey, you’ve got a responsibility to the citizens of this state to pay attention to this and we want to know where you stand. It’s ok if you don’t know. We want you to get the facts just like everybody else.’  So we’re fighting an uphill battle not only with educating citizens and getting them to take action, but educating our lawmakers as well. It’s very difficult when you’re fighting against the power and money of a big corporation. We see people from our legislature having private, off the record meetings with TransCanada representatives. You can see there’s an all-out effort on their part to control what should be controlled by the citizens of this state.


Clayton Thomas Muller – Indigenous Environment Network

Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation – also known as Pukatawagan  – in Northern Manitoba, Canada, is an activist for Indigenous rights and environmental justice. He is currently the tar sands campaign organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network. IEN is working across Canada, Alaska and the lower 48 states with grassroots indigenous communities, to defend against the sprawling infrastructure that includes pipelines, refineries and extraction associated with the tar sands.





1. What are some of the major environmental and economic questions at play when it comes to tar sands oil extraction in Canada?

There are a lot of interesting frames in this public relations war between First Nations peoples, big oil proponents, and the oil sector. We’ve seen the cooptation of the Canadian government and, of course, big oil built what is now the Alberta government over the last 25-30 years. Obviously the Canadian tar sands have become the primary economic driver for the economy. However when you have David Coles, the president of the tar sands workers’ union – the Communications, Energy and Paper Workers Union – getting arrested at the biggest act of civil disobedience that the Canadian legislature has ever seen a couple months ago, you know that not all Canadians are supporting the tar sands.

We’ve seen landowners and ranchers, non-native folks in northern Alberta, experiencing the impacts of water scarcity and contamination, and eco-system contamination, by the unregulated and rapidly expanding tar sands industry. They’ve seen the impacts on their lands. Neighboring provinces and territories have seen escalation in acid rain and the impacts that it brings to their fisheries.

2. What have been the greatest challenges faced by the campaign in fighting against an industry with such overwhelming political influence?

You have twenty of the world’s biggest oil companies operating in the tar sands, just about every single major banking institution on the planet invested, as well as investment management firms of some of the world’s biggest pension funds being institutional shareholders in some of these big oil companies. There is a tremendous amount of intricacy in terms of where the money comes from. So part of the complex strategy to confront the tar sands is to build up the case of risk. A lot of our work has been focused on targeting the shareholder meetings of these big companies and really building the case that the Canadian government is lying about the liabilities attached to the intervention of First Nations peoples over disputed lands in this country. The legal liabilities that stem from this lie could potentially result in project delays and/or stoppages in dozens of tar sands operations over a very short time frame. The other area of risk, of course, lies with impending climate legislation and impending carbon pricing in this country, which will again drive up the cost of tar sands operations.

Aside from all of that, we also have to continue to expand the political base of awareness and resistance through key popular education campaigns. Both in communities impacted by the tar sands and in allied communities that are concerned about climate change, climate justice, energy justice, human rights. We have to continue to embarrass Canada in the United Nations over its human rights record, over its climate record – Canada being the only country to walk away from the international Kyoto climate treaty. We need to continue to escalate tactics around civil disobedience because lobbying and protesting will not work by itself. We’re seeing that with the White House September 26th day of action a couple months ago, and now the November 6th ‘circle the White House’ day of action. As well as a variety of local examples on key infrastructure interventions, whether it’s the heavy haul in Montana, or Endbridge gateway in northern British Colombia.

3. How have the First Nations and the Indigenous Environmental Network engaged local political officials to build local opposition?

Well you know the NDP, the official opposition, opposes wholeheartedly the Keystone XL and wants to slow down the expansion of the tar sands until the environmental regulatory regime can catch up and until the concerns of First Nations health can be addressed. And I think that’s a pretty significant position compared to the pro-at-all-costs position that the Harper conservatives have. So First Nations leaders and grassroots leaders have been very effective in reaching out to members of NDP, and to a lesser extent the Liberal Party, in trying to find champions in the Canadian Parliament.

There’s a long way to go there and I think that’s one of the main drivers for why First Nations have internationalized their campaign – regularly lobbied ministers from the European Parliament, regularly lobbied members of Congress in the United States – to exert pressure from a different source on the Canadian government. It’s resulted in a tremendous amount of movement within the departments responsible for oversight, enforcement and regulation, both federally and provincially in Alberta. But a lot of it has been delay and dupe tactics with no real significant changes to date. We’ve yet to see any concrete action taken by the government in terms of hard caps on the actual extraction in terms of climate legislation, in terms of key water protection legislation. There hasn’t been a baseline study for First Nations on the cancer issue. There’s a long way to go yet.

4. What are the next steps for the First Nations in the campaign against the tar sands?

Some of the things that are being brought forward are direct litigations against key companies operating in the tar sands, including Shell. Also against the government of Canada and the United States by First Nations – over tar sands expansion, over the Keystone XL and lack of consultation. I think strategic and tactical considerations of “what’s next” for Native Americans and First Nations is very different than “what next” for the ENGOs, conservation groups, and landowners. Because of our unique political and legal relationship with the US or Canadian government, defined by our treaties, defined by the sacred trust relationship we have, that protects and guarantees our collective rights as indigenous peoples. It’s a bit of a different way forward, but I think moving forward in unity, especially on the Keystone XL, is a critically important thing. And on November 6th, we’ll have Native American leaders, elected and grassroots leaders, on site in DC in front of the White House calling out President Obama.


We look forward to hearing your thoughts on this piece in our comments section below.



Getting Action: Youth engagement in the struggle to stop the Keystone XL pipeline

Published November 2nd 2011

by Shawn Arquíñego

On November 1st the Nebraska state legislature opened a special session that many hope will result in the rerouting or complete barring of the Keystone XL pipeline within the state. A key part of the larger campaign, particularly within Nebraska, has been generating local public support in areas that will be directly impacted by the project’s development. In addition to this local activism, the campaign has pieced together a broad coalition working nationally as well as finding support within Canada’s indigenous communities who are focused on halting tar sands oil extraction in Alberta altogether.

While the battle to stop the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline has brought out many notable climate activists such as James Hansen, Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben, it has also galvanized America’s youth who see President Obama’s decision as having a direct impact on their generation’s future. How has the movement harnessed this popular sentiment from young people around the country and what have they themselves learned from their experiences in climate activism?

In this Getting Action piece we speak with two of these young activists about their decision to participate in the multiple-week action at the White House and how the movement first caught their attention.

Kate Hamilton is an 18 year-old graduate of Sidwell Friends School in Washington D.C. She has worked for various political campaigns and in Congress. Next semester, Kate will begin to study Political Science at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Tyson Johnson is a 21 year-old student at the University of  Nebraska-Lincoln where he majors in Political Science and Economics with a minor in Spanish. He has been involved in various on campus groups, with state-level legislative campaigns, and currently interns for Bold Nebraska.


Demonstrators against the Keystone XL pipeline in front of the White House











What motivated you personally to go join the White House protests?

Kate Hamilton: I have a great deal of faith in President Obama. I worked hard for his campaign and continue to be active with Organizing for America. I am disappointed though, that we as a nation have seen little of the candidate who promised that under his presidency, “the rise of the oceans will begin to slow and the planet to heal”. President Obama’s environmental record leaves much to be desired. Whether to approve the pipeline is perhaps the most important climate-related choice the president has been faced with, and it is his alone to make. Like many others, I felt it was imperative to show the President that the public is watching his decision intently, and to make sure that he felt pressure not only from the right wing but from the left as well. President Obama needs to know that he cannot take the support of his “base” for granted in the upcoming elections if he does not follow through on his campaign promises.


Tyson Johnson with a message for President Obama

Tyson Johnson: Leading up to that, I was still learning more about this issue and everything that I was learning wasn’t adding up to me. It seemed so clear-cut that this was not a good idea. At that time we were still trying to get public support to be a little larger. I felt like this was something that would be really important to generating attention on a national scale, but really in Nebraska [as well], and showing that Nebraska realizes that we have a say in this and we’re taking this seriously. I had never actually been to Washington, DC. I had never been arrested. I hadn’t even had a speeding ticket on my record so this was the first time anything like that happened. But I just felt like whatever risk getting arrested posed, it’s not near as great as the risk of this pipeline going through our state. [My parents] were really the most outspoken critics at that point, but after it happened so many people called my home and told my parents to thank me for taking a stand…they were won over pretty quickly so now they do support the actions that I’ve taken.

How has the movement against the Keystone pipeline been successful at attracting the interest of young people in the fight?

KH: I think that young people are inherently drawn to the movement because, though cliché, we are the generation that will inherit the planet. We realize that the United States as a country has limited resources, and believe that those resources should be spent on securing an energy efficient future. Investing in the Tar Sands is not a viable solution to the climate crisis; it is even less environmentally friendly than oil from the Middle East and the pipeline itself would last a maximum of only fifty years. There is simply nothing sustainable about the Keystone XL pipeline, and it is my generation that would deal with the consequences for our planet.

TJ: As far as activism in the state, previously it always involved the same group of people and a lot of those people were youths. However the greater student body, for example at the University here in Lincoln, really wasn’t too active in a lot of political issues. And so we’ve kind of been targeting a lot of our stuff in the downtown area just around campus, and through things like concerts or movie productions we’ve really been able to build support. Still at this point I think what is kind of unique is that the majority of the people who are helping us are still 30, 40 plus. As far as people my age it’s more, I wear a Bold Nebraska shirt and I get: “Hey you know, I heard about that” or, “Hey, can you tell me a little bit more about that? This is something I’ve been hearing on the news.” As far as getting participation from people my age, the youth, that’s something we’re still building and that can only get better. I credit Bold [Nebraska] for setting a different mentality as far as political participation in the state because I don’t think, before the success of our campaign against the pipeline, would you have seen such things as the “Occupy Lincoln” protests that are going on right now near our capitol, and it’s one of the biggest in the region. We got people camping out and in that way we’re drawing in younger people, and I think we can credit a lot of people’s energy and the time they’re willing to put in to a political issue to the example that Bold Nebraska set.

What are the most important lessons you have taken from your participation in the campaign?

KH: I think the most obvious take-away is sadly that it is really difficult for a grassroots protest to effectively stop developments that are driven by powerful private profiteers. Historically, such environmental efforts have only been successful when the public could be convinced that its interests were on the anti-corporate side, such as in the movement to ban DDT. Unfortunately, the story of the Keystone XL pipeline has largely been narrated by the corporate side, which has successfully turned it into a jobs issue, backed by labor. To me it seems that the most effective means of campaigning against the pipeline is by doing exactly what the protests are doing: raising awareness about the gravity of a decision that could have easily gone unnoticed, and putting pressure on the president to make the environmentally sound choice. The public needs to hear from the people who would be affected by the pipeline – those whose farms and water would be ruined by spills, First Nations Canadians who can no longer hunt and pick medicines – their stories are very compelling and could easily galvanize the public and humanize the cost of investing in the Tar Sands. Unfortunately though, with such watered-down campaign finance laws, corporate power in the United States is very unbalanced. We need campaign finance reform and other anti-corruption measures to restrain the power of unscrupulous business and give grassroots movements like this one a fighting chance at success.

TJ: Probably that you’re sometimes not going to convince people and you can try to have a rational conversation with them, but some people are set in their ways. Personally, I’ve found that you’ve just got to stay relaxed and stay positive in your message and in what you’re doing. Why this has become such a hot issue in Nebraska is that it crosses ideological lines—we have conservatives, progressives all working together on this. It’s not environmental extremism because these people, that are with us in our opposition to the pipeline, are people like Randy Thompson who is a conservative who had never done anything remotely similar to this before. Because a lot of it focuses around just people’s worry about putting our water at risk. We feel a lot of pride in our agriculture here, our resources, and the fact that small town farmers and landowners are the ones who would be at the greatest risk – people are really rallying around that. And it’s unique because Nebraska doesn’t really have the activist climate. You don’t see a lot of people out there and getting super involved, it’s always the same people. But this has just brought a whole bunch of [new] people into the game.


We look forward to hearing your thoughts on this piece in our comments section below.


Getting Action: the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline – interview with Bill McKibben

Published 21st October 2011


The proposed Keystone pipeline would be a 1,700 mile tube designed to carry heavy Canadian crude oil from Canada’s Alberta tar sands to the Texas Gulf Coast. The process required to extract the oil involves massive destruction of forests and land. The implications of burning all that petroleum and releasing the consequent CO2 into the atmosphere are more dire still. NASA climate scientist James Hansen has called it “game over” for the Earth’s climate.

In September citizens arrived from across both the U.S. and Canada at the gates of the White House to wage a weeks-long protest aimed at convincing President Barack Obama to use his authority to withhold approval of the pipeline. The move represented the drawing of a political “green line in the sand” by environmentalists and others. More than a thousand people were arrested.

What was behind the Keystone protests at the White House? Here on Getting Action we bring you a set of interviews with those involved. To begin the discussion we contacted one of the protest leaders, Bill McKibben of, to get his thoughts on the politics and the strategy around the campaign. With another major anti-Keystone action happening at the White House this coming Sunday (November 6th), we will be bringing you further reflection in the coming days from various voices involved. Please check back during the week, and join in the conversation in the comments section below.

Jim Shultz

The Democracy Center


Interview with Bill McKibben: author, activist and founder of the climate change campaigning organization McKibben was one of the leaders of the White House protests and among those arrested.


McKibben arrested - Milan Ilnyckyj for tarsandsaction


The Democracy Center: First, congratulations. The protests and arrests in front of the White House in August put the debate about the Keystone pipeline in the news in a big new way. Why do you think the August actions drew so much public and media attention?

Bill McKibben: I think that, as we’re seeing with Occupy Wall Street as well, people are finally figuring out that we need to take strong and coherent action to get our political leaders to do what they must. In the case of climate change, they are so intimidated by big energy companies that left to their own devices they do little or nothing. We used our bodies as a form of currency – we anted up, as it were, to get us into the game. By the time two weeks were over we’d taken a regional issue and made it a national and even global one – so I guess we spent our bodies well! It was the largest civil disobedience action in about 35 years in the U.S.

DC: You and others have said that you decided to target this fight because of the enormous climate impact that tar sands development will have if it isn’t stopped, and you have also said it makes good strategic sense because it calls on President Obama to do something he has the power to do without needing any additional approval from Congress. Do you think that the White House is concerned enough about losing support among environmentalists that the President would decide to side with you on this?

BM: I think that’s the calculation they’ll make. So we’ll keep trying to help them with the math. We’ll find out. I’d say our odds are still not great, but better than before. It’s not so much that hardcore environmentalists are going to go vote for Rick Perry; it’s that they won’t be out there fighting for Obama, building the enthusiasm that wins elections. That’s why it’s important we get a good turnout to circle the White House with people on November 6, and why we’ll keep visiting campaign offices etc. in the weeks ahead.

DC: As you gazed into President Obama’s political thinking on this, did you and other organizers of the White House actions worry about the possibility of a reaction that could work against you? Given President Obama’s litany of political moves to look more moderate, did you worry that the White House might see “saying no to protesters at the gate” as a new opportunity to polish his middle-of-the-road credentials?

BM: It’s always possible – but since he was clearly prepared to approve the thing, it didn’t seem like much risk. Every big environmental group, even the ones on the conservative end of the spectrum, said it was the right thing to do. And of course we had good and bold leadership from the indigenous community, that’s been fighting this fight for years, and from on-the-ground groups like BoldNebraska. It’s always a possibility. But in the end, you have to hope that he’ll actually do the right thing, once we’ve been able to inform him what it is. Absent outcry, he seems to do the wrong thing far too often – witness his refusal on the ozone rules right while our protest was underway.

DC: What’s next in the campaign to try and block the Keystone pipeline?

BM: We’re bird-dogging the president at all his appearances and we’re preparing for a nationwide siege of visits to Obama campaign offices, with a special emphasis on key swing states. But the biggest date on the calendar is November 6, when we will see if we can summon enough people to DC to actually circle the White House. We won’t be trying to get arrested this time, just to send the message that if he wants to do the right thing he has real support behind him.

DC: Is there anything you learned from August that you think holds some larger lessons for citizen action on the climate crisis?

BM: That it’s game on, and time to engage the fight; that people are ready to take real, difficult action. They understand we’re at crunch time and I am very, very happy to see it spreading. Given our action and Occupy Wall Street, Van Jones has started talking about an American Autumn to match the Arab Spring, and I hope he’s right.

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