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Environmental Movement to Test Its Muscle in Keystone Final Stretch

Green groups have often touted that their network of anti-Keystone XL supporters is millions strong—will they turn up to voice their opposition?

Feb 10, 2014

With the Obama administration heading into the endgame on the Keystone XL decision, now comes the final test for a resurgent U.S. environmental movement that has put all its chips on blocking the Canada-to-Texas tar sands pipeline.

"[This] is our last chance to convince the administration and the American people that this pipeline isn't actually beneficial, that it isn't in the national interest," said Danielle Droitsch, director of the Canada Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the many green groups fighting the pipeline.

Ever since the effort to pass climate change legislation failed miserably in 2010, the campaign opposing the Keystone XL has become the shared cause of dozens of organizations—from membership groups like the Sierra Club to grassroots activist coalitions like 350.org and Bold Nebraska. Together, they rekindled the use of civil disobedience in a way that has not been seen in the environmental movement since the 1960s.

In addition to helping delay a decision on the Keystone XL, now in its fifth year of federal review, the green groups' work in recent years also helped propel the issue of global warming back onto the national stage.

President Obama, who has final say on the pipeline's fate, has made clear that a yea or nay will come down to whether the project will "significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."

On Jan. 31, the State Department released its final environmental impact statement (EIS) of the project. The move started the clock on the final 90-day review period by federal agencies and by Secretary of State John Kerry, who will give Obama his recommendation on whether the pipeline is in the national interest.

Three days after the release of the EIS, the environmental movement fired its first salvos in its final push.  

An estimated 10,000 people attended anti-Keystone XL vigils scattered across the United States in 280 locations, according to CREDO, one of several groups that arranged the events. Climate activist Bill McKibben's organization 350.org announced plans for a youth-run act of civil disobedience in D.C. on March 2, where activists will chain themselves to the White House fence. And nearly 77,000 people have pledged to risk arrest if Kerry finds that the pipeline is in the nation's interest, according to CREDO.

But there are still questions as to whether turnouts of thousands of people over the next several months will be enough to force Obama's hand on the Keystone XL. Green groups have often touted that their network of anti-Keystone XL supporters is millions strong—will they turn up?

And even if the movement were able to muster such a massive public display of protest, could it offset the influence of the fossil fuel industry in Washington—which is backed by billions of dollars in lobbying power—as well as the Canadian government and a cadre of bipartisan supporters in Congress?

"So far, the Obama administration seems to have no sympathy for [the environmental movement's] goal" of stopping the pipeline and reducing America's reliance on fossil fuels, said Adam Rome, an environmental historian at the University of Delaware.

"On the other hand, the anti-pipeline movement already has forced the administration to think harder about this issue," he said. "And so I can at least imagine that the president might ultimately decide that now is the time to do something that would be a historic break with past policy."

Years in the Making

The failure of cap-and-trade legislation in 2010 was a massive blow to big inside-the-beltway environmental groups, which had spent several years and around $200 million pushing to get it passed. When TransCanada's plans to build the Keystone XL pipeline began taking shape, environmentalists saw a unique opportunity to reboot their climate efforts and grow support for global warming action at the local level.

The 1,700-mile pipeline network would carry as much as 830,000 barrels a day of a particularly high-carbon fuel from the Alberta tar sands to Texas refineries, cutting through the heart of America's farmland and bringing with it the risk of oil spills and water pollution.

For the movement, the project was a tangible symbol of business-as-usual for U.S. energy policy, and it was easier to organize around than a complicated cap-and-trade scheme. The driving forces were well-known national environmental groups, including policy-based organizations like the NRDC and the National Wildlife Federation; direct action groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth; and several local and international grassroots organizations.

MORE: To Defeat Keystone, Environmental Movement Goes From Beltway to Grassroots

People joining the fight included landowners along the pipeline's route angry about having their property seized, farmers worried about what a spill could do to their livelihoods, and climate protesters concerned that the pipeline would deepen U.S. dependence on tar sands oil and worsen global warming.

The anti-Keystone campaign catapulted fledging grassroots groups such as 350.org into the political and public spotlight. The climate advocacy organization, for instance, has more than doubled its email list to 530,000 people since the group started fighting the pipeline in 2011.

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