Demonstrators march with a replica of a pipeline during a protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline outside the White House on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Victories against climate change have been rare, so it’s vital to recognize them when they happen. The Obama administration’s decision to delay the Keystone XL pipeline is one such victory—arguably the most important achievement in the climate fight in North America in years.
True, the administration’s November 10 statements did not outright kill the 1,700-mile pipeline, which the TransCanada company wants to build to transport highly polluting tar sands from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Texas coast. Yes, President Obama or his successor could try to greenlight the project in 2013, when the State Department’s new review of the project is due. But that’s unlikely, as TransCanada’s CEO, Russ Girling, has acknowledged. The project’s contracts require the pipeline to be completed by 2013, or refineries will be free to look elsewhere for supply, which Girling expects they will.
In any case, such caveats mean only that the Keystone victory is not absolute. But when a $7 billion project involving the number-one US trading partner and oil supplier, a project that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton only a year ago said she was “inclined” to approve, is very publicly postponed—even as the inspector general of the State Department launches an investigation into cronyism involving a former top aide to Clinton—good luck putting that Humpty Dumpty together again.
The climax of the Keystone campaign came November 6, when some 12,000 activists surrounded the White House (evidently a first) to urge Obama to honor his 2008 campaign pledge to fight climate change. “We want jobs but not as gravediggers for the planet,” Roger Toussaint, international vice president of the Transport Workers Union, told the crowd in one of the strongest green declarations by a US labor leader. (Unfortunately, other elements of organized labor did not play against stereotype; the Building Trades Unions went so far as to team up with the oil industry to launch a “Jobs for the 99” campaign, co-opting Occupy rhetoric for their pro-pipeline propaganda.)
The breadth of the anti-pipeline coalition—indigenous people, progressive labor unions, youth, faith, farmer, community and environmental activists—was just one way this crusade contrasted with previous environmental campaigns. Other key differences: demands were more concrete and more radical. Strategy was set more by grassroots activists than by Beltway insiders. Tactics stressed people power—putting feet on the street, going to jail—over policy papers. The message was comprehensible to ordinary people rather than off-putting. And thanks to the Occupy movement, journalists were primed to pay attention to street protests.