In 2011, Bill McKibben, one of the world’s most well-known climate activists, swept in to energize the Keystone XL fight with civil disobedience in front of the White House. After years of sustained activism, the pipeline was rejected in November 2015. Credit: John Duffy, flickr
Reeling from a string of defeats, environmental and climate activists seized on the tar sands pipeline to rediscover how to rally large numbers of people.
This was the year that environmental groups won a seven-year battle against the Keystone XL pipeline, representing a major comeback for a movement that had lagged in influence and mass appeal for years. Defeating such a major project also marked the first time activists have been able to draw a line in the sand against an oil industry that had been seemingly immune to such campaigns.
Heading into 2016, it’s a movement enlarged and revitalized, one with new power in Washington, D.C. and the ability to mobilize thousands of people worldwide.
The nadir had come in 2010 with the death of cap-and-trade legislation that the mainstream movement had poured years of high-stakes Congressional bargaining into, as well as $229 million. That followed international climate treaty talks in Copenhagen that had unraveled spectacularly in 2009. At the same time, Americans’ acceptance of climate change nosedived, dropping from 72 percent in 2008 to 52 percent in 2010, according to a Brookings Institute poll.
“The environmental movement was in a dismal place following years of failed inside-the-beltway strategy,” said Bob Wilson, a geographer at Syracuse University who studies the modern environmental movement. “The fight against the Keystone XL pipeline revitalized the movement to an extent that we haven’t seen since the 1970s. It has been very difficult to organize around climate change because it is so abstract, so seemingly far in the future. Here was a concrete, solid thing to focus on, something to rally the grassroots around. It worked.”
But it did not happen easily or quickly. The ragged coalition that would eventually halt one of the biggest North American fossil energy projects to come along in decades had already been underway for two years. In 2007 and 2008, a collection of philanthropic foundations that champion environmental causes began funding grassroots and national groups to oppose expansion of the Alberta tar sands, the world’s third largest oil reserve stretching nearly 55,000 square miles. At the time, almost no one knew about the tar sands, let alone the project’s impacts on the environment or climate.
Enter the Keystone XL.
In 2008, TransCanada applied for a U.S. presidential permit to build a segment of pipeline that would connect Alberta’s landlocked oil with refineries in the Gulf of Mexico, and give tar sands access to world markets. On its path to Texas, Keystone XL also would cross the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies about 30 percent of the groundwater pumped for irrigation in the entire U.S. and the drinking water for nearly 2 million Americans. Anti-tar sands activists knew they had found their target.
Global Climate Change