The Climate Movement Temporarily Stops an Oil Sands Pipeline. Now They Need to Start Something

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Give Bill McKibben and the thousands of other protesters who put their safety and freedom on the line in protest after protest against the proposed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline: they won their battle. Today the State Department—which has jurisdiction over the project because it connects the U.S. with Canadian oil sands—announced that it would extend its review of the Keystone pipeline until at least the beginning of 2013. The State Department statement (no way to write that cleanly) cited a number of reasons for the delay—pipeline safety, health concerns, local environmental worries, even climate change—but there can be little doubt that a driving force was the growing #NoXL protest movement. The loose alliance united environmentalists like McKibben and the climate scientist James Hansen, who worried about the extra greenhouse gases from all that oil sands crude, with ranchers and farmers who live along the proposed pipeline path in Nebraska. And the pressure helped turn the approval of the Keystone from what Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper called a “no-brainer” to something that now may be off the table altogether.

From TIME: Greens Are Justifiably Mad About the Oil Sands Pipeline

From White House Press Secretary Jay Carney’s briefing on November 10:

The President wants the best possible decision.  And I think he made clear in an interview the week before last what he views are the criteria necessary by which to judge whether the decision is the right one or how to make that decision, including issues of public health, climate change, economic growth and jobs.  All of these things have to be factored in to a decision that’s made.

Environmentalists—who, let’s fact it, haven’t exactly had a lot to cheer about lately—weren’t shy about celebrating their victory: From McKibben’s blog on

It’s important to understand how unlikely this victory is. Six months ago, almost no one outside the pipeline route even knew about Keystone XL. One month ago, a secret poll of “energy insiders” by the National Journal found that “virtually all” expected easy approval of the pipeline by year’s end. As late as last week the CBC reported that Transcanada was moving huge quantities of pipe across the border and seizing land by eminent domain, certain that its permit would be granted. A done deal has come spectacularly undone.

Our movement spoke loudly about climate change and the President responded. There have been few even partial victories about global warming in recent years so that makes this an important day.

More from TIME: Should the U.S. Be Piping in Canadian Oil Sands?

The White House may deny it, but political calculations almost certainly played a role in the Keystone delay—for once, at least, in greens’ favor. The first quarter of 2013—the time the State Department expects to be ready to issue a final ruling—is conveniently right after the 2012 Presidential election. Obama may indeed pay a political price with some Americans—Republican House Speaker John Boehner argued that “campaign politics are driving U.S. policy positions,” while Canadian Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver told Reuters “we are disappointed with the delay.” (Obama will be meeting with Harper on the sidelines of the this weekend’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Honolulu, which may be, um, awkward.)

I was skeptical of the green focus on the Keystone pipeline, in part because it seemed absurd to me that environmentalists were threatening to withdraw support for Obama in 2012 over one project—if only because the election of a Republican to the White House would cause incomparably more damage to the climate. And as Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote recently, Keystone wasn’t really going to make much of a difference on the climate front—certainly not the world-destroying catastrophe people like Hansen tried to make it out to be. From Levi:

It’s kind of obvious that concentrating on Jamaican emissions would be a distraction. But Jamaica’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions are pretty similar to the incremental emissions you’d expect from Keystone XL. (And I haven’t even mentioned that, as the price for eliminating Jamaican emissions, U.S. consumers would have to send a little money to the Middle East.) To be fair, I’ve done this comparison by assuming that Canadian oil replaces Middle Eastern crude. If I instead assumed unrealistically, that higher Canadian production simply added to the global supply of oil – and, conversely, that blocking Keystone XL would cut global oil consumption rather than just shifting it to lower-carbon fuels – the increased emissions would be higher. Instead of talking about Jamaica, we’d be discussing Belgium. (To be fair, though, Belgian emissions are still a bit higher.)

That gets to the heart of my point. Advocates of aggressive action on climate change have limited political capital. The United States has limited economic resources. Neither has the option of becoming obsessed with random opportunities to cut emissions without regard to large or small they are.

More from TIME: Green Jobs Vs. Brown Jobs

Of course, Keystone presented a unique opportunity in the mind-numbingly complex world of climate politics to focus public attention—and fear—on a single project that could be stopped. It was a pressure point, and McKibben and company applied a perfect Vulcan nerve pinch on it. They deserve to feel good

But Keystone may have been a special case—and a throwback. The local concerns in Nebraska had less to do with the climate risks of oil sands crude than fear of a pipeline spill into the Ogallala aquifer in Nebraska. That’s a real concern—but it’s local, not the same as the global nature of the climate threat. As veterans of the environmental movement know, it’s a lot easier to get people motivated to stop development than it is to organize them to push for something new. And sometimes that anti-development feeling can backfire as well—look at some of the resistance to new wind turbines, solar projects and power lines that could connect to renewable sources.

If the climate movement is going to make a real difference, it needs to mobilize the same level of popular and political passion towards developing renewable energy, spending more government money on energy research and development and passing climate legislation. This is hardly a secret—there were protests and campaigns for the climate bill in 2009 and 2010, and McKibben’s own campaign is about a lot more than just stopping fossil fuel development. But I’ve rarely seen the sheer energy towards technocratic policies like cap-and-trade or renewable energy mandates that I’ve seen when visiting Americans who are vehemently opposed to hydrofracking, for example. Protests and passion may have helped stop the Keystone pipeline, but will it be enough to build a new energy economy?

More from TIME: Standing Against Oil Sands 

Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME