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To Defeat Keystone, Environmental Movement Goes From Beltway to Grassroots

Green groups turn away from the political tactics that failed them in the 2009 climate policy fight and join activists voicing opposition in the streets.

May 23, 2013
Keystone protests

As decision day nears on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, the environmental movement looks different than it did in 2009—the last time a major climate policy fight took center stage in Washington.

Then, the nation's largest green groups were the main engine behind a movement to pass federal climate change legislation. They spent vast quantities of financial and political capital lobbying congressional negotiators and corporations, before the bill failed in 2010.

This time, the main force of opposition is a messy amalgam of disparate grassroots efforts stretching from Maine to Utah that has found common cause in stopping the Canada-to-Texas pipeline and other tar sands projects. Instead of relying mainly on inside-the-Beltway tactics, these activists are taking to the streets in protest, engaging in civil disobedience and public education, in the hope of applying enough public pressure to move President Obama. Mainstream green groups are still involved, but much of the momentum is coming from community campaigns—with 350.org, a grassroots climate group founded by Bill McKibben, playing a key role.

"There was a lot of soul-searching by major environmental groups when they lost" in 2010, said David Pomerantz, a spokesperson for Greenpeace. "The community has realized ... there needs to be considerably more demand from constituents."

Just last week, the loose movement saw hundreds of activists march at an Obama fundraiser event in New York City, two citizens encase themselves in concrete at a construction site for the southern leg of the Keystone, and Utahans flood the email inboxes and fax machines of investors for a proposed tar sands mine in Utah with the message "We will stop you before it starts." Hundreds also protested at the Council on Foreign Relations' headquarters in Manhattan where Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was lobbying for Keystone approval.

"We're not going to stop," said Phil Strickland, a member of the Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance Group, a new organization focused on stopping the Keystone. "This kind of activism forces people to pay attention to places that usually get dismissed or ignored," such as communities along the Keystone route, he said.

But the Keystone opponents face a formidable—and unified—adversary. The North American oil industry and the Canadian and Alberta governments have stepped up lobbying in recent months armed with three main talking points: Approval of the 830,000-barrel-a-day pipeline would reduce U.S. reliance on Middle Eastern oil, create U.S. jobs and boost economic growth in Alberta's oil sands region.

The Keystone's opponents range from wealthy Obama donors and volunteer youth activists to landowners along the Keystone route. Residents along the routes of other proposed pipelines have also joined the fight because they realize the Keystone outcome will set a precedent for decisions on other projects.

"Over the past year, we've seen unprecedented growth in this movement" all across North America, said Hannah McKinnon, the national program manager of the Canadian green group Environmental Defence. "Climate has become an indie issue. This is because the effects of it can now be felt and seen in people's backyards."

Grassroots efforts have been buoyed in many cases by organizational support and high-profile leadership from large environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council. For many of them, blocking the Keystone became a single, shared cause after the effort to pass climate legislation failed. They emphasize that the pipeline would deepen the country's dependence on a form of oil that produces more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil. Early this year, the Sierra Club's board approved participation in a civil disobedience protest for the first time in the group's 120-year history.

Because the Canada-to-Nebraska leg of the pipeline crosses an international border, the State Department will decide whether to give it the federal permit it needs, but Obama is expected to weigh heavily in the decision, expected later this year. Construction on the southern half of the project, which runs to the Texas Gulf Coast and does not need State Department approval, is nearly finished.

Adam Rome, a historian of the U.S. environmental movement at the University of Delaware, said the most powerful campaigns in history happened when grassroots groups and national organizations joined forces—something he sees starting to happen with climate action today.

"Lasting change only comes when there are lots of people concerned about the problem," he said. "But you also need economically and politically powerful people [like those leading the national green groups]. When these two groups become allies, that’s when they have the most influence."

Industry groups, however, don't seem particularly worried.

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