By Ben Adler on 6 Nov 2015
Everyone is talking about President Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, but he’s not actually the hero of the story. The Keystone decision is the culmination of a startlingly successful grassroots activist campaign that defied the odds and convinced the Obama administration to change course against building a major piece of fossil fuel infrastructure. Here’s how it came together, as recounted by a few of the key players.
Pipeline company TransCanada first submitted its application to build Keystone XL (KXL) in 2008, and it was expected to quietly cruise to State Department approval even if Obama won the White House. In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, in a comment that has since become infamous, “we are inclined to” approve it. A previous Keystone pipeline (without “XL” in its name), which goes from Alberta to Illinois, had overcome resistance from environmentalists and indigenous communities in both the U.S. and Canada and been completed in 2010.
The climate movement was still in its early stages at that time, years away from organizing rallies that would bring out 40,000 people in D.C. in 2013 and nearly 400,000 in New York in 2014. Public acceptance of climate science, following the recession and the birth of the Tea Party, was at a nadir in 2010. No one expected that Obama, who had clearly articulated an “all of the above” energy strategy, was likely to be swayed by a campaign against KXL — not even the activists themselves.
And yet, uphill though the struggle would be, some organizers thought the issue had real appeal. It was tangible and easy to understand in a way that power plant regulation is not. And it would not require cooperation from Congress — it was ultimately up to Obama and Obama alone. All they needed to do was convince the president to take their side.
In 2011, when 350.org, the climate action group that would become widely identified with the anti-KXL campaign, glommed onto the issue, there were two groups of activists already working on it: locals from affected communities along the proposed pipeline route, such as ranchers, farmers, and Native Americans, and environmental wonks in Washington, D.C.