Feb 2012: The Tricky Activism Politics of the Keystone XL Pipeline

Dear friends:

If you follow the news in the U.S., by now you have most likely heard of the Keystone XL pipeline. You may have read news of the spirited protests against it last summer and fall at the White House. Or you may have heard the Republican Presidential candidates denouncing President Obama for “caving in” to those protests. Either way, Keystone XL has now become both the leading environmental campaigning cause in the country and a major issue in the 2012 campaign.

How did this happen and where is all this likely to go? Today the Democracy Center offers a pair of special features on the battle against Keystone XL. The first is an inside look at the campaign, interviews with its most visible leaders and with some of the young people who have given the effort its fire. You can read that report here. And below, in this issue of the Democracy Center Newsletter, we offer an analysis of the campaign: The Tricky Activist Politics of the Keystone Pipeline.

Today also marks an important moment to take action yourself. We urge all our friends to join the Democracy Center and dozens of other organizations in flooding the U.S. Senate with a 24–hour barrage of 500,000 messages calling for rejection of legislation that would force immediate pipeline approval. You can add your voice to the fight here. As always, thank you for your interest and please pass this along to others who might wish to read it as well.

Jim Shultz
The Democracy Center

Credit: Emma Cassidy for tarsandsaction

The Tricky Activism Politics of the Keystone Pipeline

Phase out of emissions from coal is itself an enormous challenge. However, if the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over. – NASA Climate Scientist, Dr. James Hansen

“People are looking for ways to express their sense of urgency about this crisis. People want to take action to show that the Earth is in the balance.” – Author and activist, Naomi Klein

He [President Obama] seems to have confused the national interest with his own interest in pleasing the environmentalists in his political base.” – Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney

“The decision by the Obama Administration is another capitulation to the radical environmental fringe – and in turn puts our national security and economy at risk.” – Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum

Last September more than 1,200 environmental activists were arrested at the gates of the White House. The arrests were part of a weeks-long protest aimed at persuading President Obama to block authorization of the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry crude oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. In November those numbers swelled by thousands, as activists returned to Washington to form a human chain around the White House, complete with a black inflatable replica of the pipeline. On January 18 the President handed them a victory, a temporary one at least, announcing that the administration was denying the permits required for Keystone’s construction.

How did citizens turn a proposed 1,700-mile steel tube into a national cause? How did it suddenly take center stage in the U.S. Presidential campaign? And what is ahead in the tricky politics of Keystone XL?

Targeting the Tar Sands

The ‘tar sands’ of western Canada are a complex underground stew where sand, clay and water mix with a form of thick black oil – enough to produce more than a million barrels a day of sought-after petroleum. When global oil companies and the Canadian government look at Alberta’s dark soil they see a fortune. U.S. boosters of the tar sands project see a new source of needed energy from a friendly government just across the border. But climate scientists see something else – a carbon time bomb.

Dr. James Hansen, the NASA climate scientist who sounded some of the first climate change warnings in the early 1980s began sounding a new alarm about the Canadian tar sands project early last year. He warned that if the massive and dirty petroleum supplies buried in the tar sands are fully released into the atmosphere it would in essence be “game over” for carbon reduction, and in turn the effort to slow the lethal path of global climate change. Climate activists, dedicated to lessening the world’s addiction to oil, saw in the tar sands the petroleum equivalent of an alcoholic finding a refrigerator full of six packs in the basement. [Read more about the tar sands.]

Native American groups in Canada (First Nations) have been fighting tar sands excavation for years. The strip mining operations involved leave behind ruthless contamination of the water and land and lasting damage to fragile ecosystems. But their battle is a hard one. “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,” says Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation.

In 2011, First Nations groups found a new set of allies among U.S. environmentalists and others who set upon a new strategy for slowing the project – turning off its main southbound tap.

The Keystone XL Leveraging Strategy

Central to the Canadian government’s tar sands development strategy is the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed 1,700-mile, 36-inch-in-diameter steel tube that would take the rough crude mined in Alberta southward through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma to Texas for refining and then sale to global markets. That’s 1,700 miles worth of communities that might have enough power to say no. Opponents understand that cutting off the project’s key Texas-bound tap won’t stop tar sands development, but it could slow it and buy some time.

Nebraskans have been leading the charge against the pipeline for years. BoldNebraska, a coalition of farmers, ranchers, labor unions, environmentalists and other communities, has hammered on state officials to refuse the pipeline the required state permits. Ben Gotschall, a cattle rancher and BoldNebraska leader explained to us, “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.'”

In the summer of 2011 Bill McKibben, the founder of the climate action group 350.org, thought he found another leveraging point to block Keystone XL – the White House. In order for Keystone XL to be built the administration had to grant its blessing, a move it could refuse without any authorization from Republicans in Congress. Environmental groups decided that the time was ripe to make Keystone XL a green political test for the President on the eve of his re-election campaign.

In September they brought their anti–Keystone XL demand to the President’s front door. “We used our bodies as a form of currency,” McKibben told us. “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.” On November 6th, a symbolic year–to–the–day before the day the President would be seeking their votes, concerned citizens returned to the White House and surrounded it with an enormous human chain.

Four days later President Obama announced he was delaying a decision on the Keystone XL permit until after the 2012 vote. Congressional Republicans, eager to force Mr. Obama to choose to between the environmentalists on one side and labor backers of Keystone XL on the other, piggybacked a 60-day decision deadline onto a December stopgap bill on the payroll tax. The President responded in January by denying the Keystone XL permit, blaming the Republicans for rushing the decision.

McKibben and others were jubilant. “The victory is of course a tribute to people who set aside their natural cynicism about the possibility of change and instead went to jail in record numbers, wrote public comments in record numbers, surrounded the White House shoulder to shoulder five deep.”

The Republican Empire Strikes Back

Keystone XL opponents were not the only ones jubilant over the President’s decision. Republican political consultants saw immediately in the pipeline decision the chance for an election year blast at the White House that tied together almost every issue they dreamed of – Iran, China, energy prices, jobs, and the President’s loyalties to “the radical environmental fringe.”

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich launched the new Republican narrative in a Presidential debate less than a week later. Noting that the Iranians were threatening a cutoff of U.S. oil supplies in the Middle East, he declared:

This idea of vetoing the Keystone pipeline is wrong on every possible grounds. It would have led to 20,000 to 50,000 construction jobs while it was being built. We would have made money for 30 to 50 years processing Canadian oil. Then the ports of Galveston and Houston would have made money actually shipping the oil. Instead because Obama wanted to have a handful of San Francisco extremists happy, he vetoed it, which means that Prime Minister Harper, who’s a conservative and pro-American, is now talking about working out an agreement with the Chinese to build the pipeline due west across the Rockies to Vancouver, more expensive but doable.

Soon the other GOP candidates were piling on as well, signaling to a nervous president that the Keystone issue is going to hang around his neck to defend all the way through the fall.

Public Opinion Bats Last

Why is the battle against the Keystone pipeline so urgent? If there is one thing we have learned from the fight against coal (by far the single largest U.S. contributor to climate change) it is that once corporations have made big investments in infrastructure, they will fight tooth and nail for decades to squeeze the last return possible out of that investment, environmental concerns be damned. Another 50-year infrastructure investment in petroleum in the U.S. means another 50 years of political battle to wean our economy off oil.

Converting Keystone XL from being an invisible issue to being a global cause is a major achievement, as was convincing President Obama to reject permits for the pipeline. But in politics, on issues this big, leveraging can work in the short-term – but in the end public opinion bats last. Now that actions at the White House have made Keystone a major national issue, we are going to have to win not just the protest game but public opinion as well. That won’t be easy. Keystone backers have a far bigger megaphone and have already spent millions in donations to Congress to buttress their case.

It is in the nature of strong advocacy to expect a backlash. Ultimately winning depends on your ability to meet that backlash head on and defeat it. To ultimately win, opponents of Keystone XL need to make the case on the merits to the public, not just on the politics to the President. We need to make clear that the jobs estimates are wildly overblown; that the winners from all that environmentally reckless oil transport will not be families and communities but corporations; and that those who oppose the pipeline are all kinds of Americans not just one kind. Finally, we are going to have to make and win the most fundamental case of all on climate – that the environment we will bequeath to our children and their children matters so deeply that this time we need to leave the oil right in the ground where we found it, even if someone has to sacrifice a hefty profit in order to do so.

Join the effort to stop Keystone XL today by signing the petition to the U.S. Senate here..

Jim Shultz
Executive Director, the Democracy Center

This article was posted in Climate, Newsletter. Bookmark this article.

One Response to Feb 2012: The Tricky Activism Politics of the Keystone XL Pipeline

  1. Pinokyo says:

    I think we need to put a tax on all eantronmevinl groups the revenue would go into a fund supporting energy subsidies for individuals. Membership in one of those groups would disqualify one from the subsidy. Reply