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?

Last February, environmental leaders were arrested at the White House in an attempt to pressure President Obama to reject the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline. (From left to right: Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, 350.org founder Bill McKibben and El Puente President Luis Garden Acosta.) Credit: Christine Irvine

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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.

In one of the movement’s greatest successes so far, McKibben and 350.org sparked fossil fuel divestment campaigns at 500 universities, dozens of state and local governments, religious institutions and some private foundations—provoking discussions on Wall Street about the long-term viability oil, gas and coal investments. 

The Final Fight

While these efforts have been encouraging for the movement, there is little indication as to whether they will result in the rejection of the pipeline.

Proponents of the Keystone XL interpreted the State Department’s final environmental impact statement as giving Obama the greenlight to approve the project. A close reading of the thick report, however, gives ammunition to both sides of the debate and leaves the door open for a yes or a no.

MORE: Keystone Review Leaves Door Open for Obama Approval, or Rejection

Ultimately, environmentalists know it is Obama’s choice—and it is he who the groups plan to target with their coming deluge of activism.

“We’ll be walking from Georgetown, where President Obama made his climate pledge last year, to the White House, where he is currently sitting doing nothing on the issue,” said Aly Johnson-Kurts, a co-organizer of 350.org’s youth-run civil disobedience on March 2. “People are frustrated and they are looking for ways to show it.”

Equally frustrated are proponents of the pipeline—TransCanada, the Canadian government, the North American oil industry and politicians in energy-producing states—who for years have been trying to sell the American people on its economic benefits. They too have kicked their campaigning into high gear, with TV appearances and op-eds.

“This new [State Department] study underscores what has been said all along about Keystone XL pipeline: It’s time to build,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, who is expected to take helm of the Senate Energy Committee later this month and is a staunch supporter of the project.

It could still be a long wait for all.

The White House has said Obama will not make a rushed decision, leaving environmental activists unsure as to whether they’ll need to sustain their anti-Keystone efforts for just a few months or a few years. They do have legal recourse if Obama approves the project, unlike the pipeline’s opponents, and already that legal fight to delay and block the Keystone XL has started.

MORE: Foes of Keystone XL Begin New Legal Battle Against State Department

Their preference though, it seems, is to win in the streets.

To fight the pipeline, green groups turned away from the inside-the-beltway tactics that had failed them in the past and instead focused on fostering public protests to move President Obama. But one has to wonder: Can environmentalists have an impact in the Oval Office while they are outside, chained to the White House fence?