chevron-up sitemap chevron-up2 youtube share-alt chevron-down share mail download home alarm search menu link cross play arrow-right google-plus facebook twitter youtube2 wordpress soundcloud podcast video microsite report collection toolkit whatsapp thinkpiece storify

Getting Action: Keystone XL Denied, Big Oil Incredulous

Details of the latest developments as the White House rejects the pipeline permit.

by Ben Brouwer

On Wednesday the Obama Administration rejected TransCanada’s permit application for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, handing another victory to a strategic and successful climate campaign.  Now it’s on to Round 3 in a fight that won’t end with the President’s latest dismissal of the pipeline. In a rare defeat for Big Oil, industry promoters and Congressional Republicans were fuming.


Credit: Emma Cassidy for tarsandsaction


The Democracy Center’s recently released strategy brief shares insight from some of the key organizers and activists who succeeded in forcing the Obama Administration to delay its decision on the Keystone XL pipeline permit until after the 2012 election, and then ultimately gave him the political cover to deny the permit yesterday.

This high-stakes political battle focuses on the question of whether a pipeline will be built to carry oil sands crude from Canada to refineries on the US Gulf Coast. Keystone XL would dangerously expedite the energy-intensive exploitation of the oil sands with grave consequences for the climate, according to NASA’s top climate scientist, James Hansen. Moreover, the project would be a tremendous threat to water supplies, farmland and ecosystems vulnerable to ruptures in the pipeline.

Here’s a quick update on the evolution of this issue in the last few months.

  • November 10, 2011: The Obama Administration announces that a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline will be delayed until after the November 2012 election.  Environmental groups that had fought hard for an outright denial of the pipeline permit are pleased with the President’s delay and declare victory.
  • December 6: Congressional Republicans quickly find a way to force an earlier decision on the permit therefore ensuring that the pipeline will remain an election-year issue: they threaten to tie approval of the permit to must-pass payroll tax cut legislation.
  • December 7: In a press briefing with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (a vocal supporter of the pipeline), President Obama declares that he will veto payroll tax cut legislation that is hitched to approval of the pipeline: “Any effort to try to tie Keystone to the payroll tax cut I will reject.”
  • December 12: The State Department explains that a rushed timeline will not allow for adequate, legal review of a new pipeline route.
  • December 14: Dan Pfeiffer, White House Communications Director, says via Twitter, “The House bill simply shortens the review process in a way that virtually guarantees that the pipeline will NOT be approved.”
  • December 23: Ultimately the House and Senate pass a payroll tax cut extension that includes a provision mandating a State Department decision on the pipeline in 60 days. Obama signs it, despite earlier protests. The law requires a decision on Keystone XL by February 21, 2012.
  • January 10, 2012: MapLight, a California-based independent research group, releases a report identifying $12 million in payments from the oil industry to Congressional supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline, in just the past two years.
  • January 12: The oil industry, US Chamber of Commerce, Congressional Republicans and other pipeline supporters, including some trade unions and Democratic lawmakers, step up their campaign for approval of the pipeline threatening election year consequences if the permit is denied.
  • January 18: The Obama Administration’s State Department rejects the Keystone XL permit application, while leaving the door open to a new application with a route around ecologically sensitive areas in Nebraska.

Environmental groups have vowed that they will continue to fight back against industry pressure for pipeline approval, seeking to discredit TransCanada’s job creation figures with an independent study from Cornell University that cites a significantly lower number of long term jobs.  Opponents of the pipeline are also taking aim at Congressional supporters by pointing out the millions of dollars from dirty energy businesses and front groups that have landed in their campaign coffers.

The strategic focus on the “power of money in Congress” is timely: it builds on the popular discontent with corporate power that has been renewed by the Occupy movement and amplified by unfettered “Super PAC” election spending. The international climate action organization,, is calling for a rally at Congress on January 24 in which activists will dress in referee uniforms and “blow the whistle on Big Oil corruption.”

Crucially, this strategy confronts the deepest root cause of climate change: the unyielding power of the dirty energy lobby in US policy making. If it succeeds in the battle against the Keystone XL pipeline, there is hope that this strategy will be able to break down barriers to the systematic economic and energy reforms that are required for the health, prosperity and security of this and future generations.

In our recently released campaign brief you can find out more about the strategies and tactics Keystone XL opponents have used to win this battle. Also stay tuned for a new series of profiles showcasing the successful strategies of climate change campaigners around the world.   


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

What's Next?