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Activist Leaders Explain How They Beat the Keystone XL Pipeline

Persistence, solidarity and youthful optimism gave activists and landowners an edge in battle to keep Keystone XL pipeline out of Nebraska Sandhills.

Nov 11, 2011
Nov. 6 protest at the White House

WASHINGTON—Just six months ago, few could have imagined that an inanimate object as ugly as a 36-inch diameter, 1,702-mile oil sands pipeline could revive a dormant and depressed climate movement.

But then handfuls of activists experienced a series of "aha" moments that resuscitated their cause. First, they connected the dots between the BP oil spill, a do-nothing Congress and the "carbon bomb" that would likely be released if Alberta's tar sands continue to be mined. They also began pressing President Obama on his promise to wean the country of its oil addiction.

Gradually, something began to click. During the summer, more than 1,250 anti-pipeline protesters were arrested during a two-week sit-in at the White House. Hundreds more dogged Obama wherever he traveled across the country. And last Sunday, 10,000-plus flocked to the nation's capital to encircle the eight city blocks around the president's home.

On Thursday afternoon, the newly energized climate activists discovered that the formula they had created had been wildly successful. That's when State Department officials announced that they will delay TransCanada's proposed $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline project while they search for a route that keeps it out of Nebraska's fragile Sandhills landscape and irreplaceable Ogallala Aquifer. That decision will significantly slow—and maybe even halt—a project that would have pumped 900,000 barrels a day of a type of heavy crude called diluted bitumen from Alberta to refineries along the Gulf Coast. State Department officials estimate an environmental analysis of a reroute through the Cornhusker State won't be complete until 2013.

As environmentalists reveled in their monumental accomplishment Thursday evening, InsideClimate News interviewed representatives from seven advocacy organizations that contributed to the anti-pipeline endeavor. The news was still so fresh that some were still adapting to an unfamiliar dynamic, in which they emerged the winners.

In separate conversations, they talked about how they had forced the Obama administration to reconsider Nebraska—and how they would use those strategies to continue their opposition to the pipeline. Their lessons? Be relentless, share credit for successes, engage in less bickering and more cooperation, broaden the membership base and always remember to say thank you. On that last note, they graciously lauded the president for following through on his climate vows.

Damon Moglen, director of the climate and energy program at Friends of the Earth, said the rise from despair to action required the melding of traditional environmental tactics with an emerging and optimistic force of teen-agers and 20- and 30-somethings.

"I think what we're seeing is a remarkable new 21st century activism movement," Moglen said. "Younger people are growing up seeing climate change as an overwhelming challenge of the era. This is their fight and they're animated and impassioned.

"They believed Obama when he told them he would act on climate change. Thursday's decision gives them a flavor of winning. It recharges their passion and idealism."

That insight resonated with Courtney Hight, the 32-year-old co-director of the Energy Action Coalition. Her network of 50 youth-led community-based and national organizations with an environmental and social justice bent is a magnet for college students. About 10,000 of them traveled to the nation's capital in April to participate in an event called "Power Shift" that asked the president to stand up to Big Oil.

"Just months ago, the Keystone XL project was essentially signed, sealed and delivered," Hight said. "The fact that we changed that is a tribute to the power of the grass-roots movement. This happened because people organized."

Back in April 2007, Hight was one of the first Obama supporters on the ground in New Hampshire. Later, she coordinated the future president's youth vote efforts in Florida. After the 2008 election, she worked for more than a year for the Council on Environmental Quality at the White House.

By design, the advocacy organizations fought the pipeline plan on different levels while also playing to their individual strengths. Their divide-the-chores-and-conquer approach allowed researchers to delve into nitty-gritty science and safety details, educators to teach via outreach and marchers to put feet on the street.

For instance, Friends of the Earth took the lead on obtaining a damning chain of emails between TransCanada lobbyists and State Department officials. Other organizations hammered on the State Department's questionable decision to hire the environmental consulting company Cardno Entrix—which lists TransCanada as a major client—to conduct environmental evaluations of Keystone XL.

"Not since the first Earth Day have I seen so much energy directed toward conserving the environment for our children," Larry Schweiger, president and chief executive officer of the National Wildlife Federation, said in an e-mail. "This is a great moment for the thousands of Americans who have stood up to this project, from town halls to the White House."

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