Hillary Clinton announced her position on the Keystone XL pipeline on Tuesday, putting an end to years of evasion. “I oppose it,” Clinton said at a campaign event in Iowa, “because I don’t think it’s in the best interest of what we need to do to combat climate change.”
Clinton’s evolution on Keystone indicates how much has changed in the political landscape that the pipeline must cross. In 2010, as secretary of state, Clinton said she was “inclined” to approve the project, arguing, “We’re either going to be dependent on dirty oil from the Gulf or dirty oil from Canada.” That construction would go forward seemed inevitable—until activists began a concentrated effort to bring attention to the climate implications of exploiting huge fossil-fuel reserves like the Alberta tar sands.
Now, years of demonstrations, arrests, and coalition-building has transformed Keystone from a fringe cause to a must-answer question in the presidential contest. “This became by far the biggest environmental fight of the decade,” said Bill McKibben, the writer and a founder of 350.org, one of the groups responsible for making Keystone XL the point of convergence for the climate movement, and consequently a national political issue. “That organizing forced everyone to take a long look at the tar sands and what it meant—eventually that would lead anyone who is not completely bought off to understand what a boondoggle this thing is.”
Clinton’s condemnation of Keystone was mild: She called it a “distraction from the important work we have to do to combat climate change.” The subtext was that it has also become a distraction to her campaign. Clinton had repeatedly declined to take a position—“You won’t get me to talk about Keystone,” she promised in January—but was under increasing pressure from environmentalists and Democratic rivals Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, who both oppose the pipeline. “I think Bernie was remarkably important,” McKibben said. “Bernie was the first important politician to come out squarely against Keystone…. He’s been exceedingly polite about not criticizing Hillary Clinton, but he has pointed out over and over again how strange it is that she has no position on this key question, and I think that’s a major factor.”