Obama's Keystone Veto Threat Is Proof that Climate Activism Works

When the news arrived from the White House on Tuesday that Barack Obama would veto the GOP’s Keystone pipeline bill – or at least “that the president would not sign this bill” as is – I thought back to a poll that the National Journal conducted of its “energy insiders” in the fall of 2011, just when then issue was heating up. Nearly 92% of them thought Obama’s administration would approve the pipeline, and almost 71% said it would happen by the end of that year.


Keystone’s not dead yet – feckless Democrats in the Congress could make some kind of deal later this month or later this year, and the president could still yield down the road to the endlessly corrupt State Department bureaucracy that continues to push the pipeline – but it’s pretty amazing to see what happens when people organize.

The fight against the XL pipeline began with indigenous people in Canada, and spread to ranchers along the pipeline route in places like Nebraska. And then, in the spring of 2011, when the climate scientist Jim Hansen pointed out the huge pool of carbon in the Canadian tar sands, the fight spread to those of us in the nascent climate movement. We had no real hope of stopping Keystone – as the National Journal poll indicated, this seemed the most done of deals – but we also had no real choice but to try.

And so people went to jail in larger numbers than they had for many years, and wrote more emails to the Senate than on pretty much any issue in history, and made more public comments to the government than on any infrastructure project in history. And all that effort didn’t just tie up this one pipeline in knots. It also scared investors enough that they shut down three huge planned new tar-sands mines, taking $17bn in capital and millions of tons of potential emissions off the table. And it helped embolden people to fight every other pipeline, and coal port, and frack field, and coal mine. The Keystone fights helped spur a full-on fossil-fuel resistance that now mounts a powerful challenge to the entire fossil-fuel industry at every single turn.

It’s not as if we’re winning the climate fight – the planet’s temperature keeps rising. But we’re not losing it the way we used to. If the president sticks to his word, this will be the first major fossil-fuel project ever shut down because of its effect on the climate. The IOU that the president and the Chinese wrote in November about future carbon emissions is a nice piece of paper that hopefully will do great things in the decades ahead – but the Keystone denial is cash on the barrelhead. It’s actually keeping some carbon in the ground.

The fossil-fuel industry’s aura of invincibility is gone. They’ve got all the money on the planet, but they no longer have unencumbered political power. Science counts, too, and so do the passion, spirit and creativity of an awakened movement from the outside, from the ground-up. So the “energy insiders” of Washington are going to have to recalculate the odds. Because no one’s going to believe that any of these fights are impossible any more.

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