The Three Groups Behind Killing Keystone XL
How they were all integral in the movement and what it all means
Supply-side activism has had its fair share of scrutiny from those who believe that efforts not attacking policy are wasted efforts, even detrimental. But whether you believe that the activists who worked to stop Keystone XL deserve criticism or not, it’s indisputable that their efforts were effective. Environmentalists stand to learn from the seemingly insurmountable uphill battle that was killing the pipeline.
When TransCanada submitted the 2008 proposal for Keystone XL, the fourth part of the Keystone project, they did not expect such backlash against what was supposed to be a routine procedure. Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, said in 2010 that the administration was “inclined to” sign off on the pipeline. She did not know that this quote would live on in infamy (and has since reversed this statement).
But as early as 2006, a small group of activists had quietly been working against Keystone and oil sands. The movement would grow much larger in the years following.
Group one: the activists
The opposition against Keystone XL didn’t start with Keystone XL. It started with the ill effects of oil sands, even before the first part of the Keystone project was built in 2010. Oil sands were found to release 17 percent more greenhouse gases when oil was extracted, as opposed to traditional drilling methods. Keystone XL would transport gooey bitumen that would likely cause disaster if leaked.
In this initial push against oil sands, the only people working against what would later be a huge issue for US environmentalists were a few NRDC advocates and their allies.
When Keystone XL was announced in 2008, it was clear such a small group would not be enough. The NRDC partnered with Corporate Ethics International, and recruited organizations such as Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation to join their fight.
In 2011, 350.org, an organization founded by activist and author Bill McKibben, reached out to the NRDC and the rest of the environmental coalition to stage a protest in front of the White House. Two weeks of sit ins lead to over 1,200 arrests, bringing the issue to a much wider audience.
In the year following, the movement only grew. After President Obama’s reelection, activists geared up for another protest in 2013, this time a march on the National Mall in chilly February winter. More than 35,000 people strong, this march even compelled the Sierra Club to organize its first official act of civil disobedience in its history.
That June, in a major climate speech, Obama announced that he would approve the pipeline only if it didn’t “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” People on both sides of the issue used this to argue their case. Activists knew they would have to make it clear that Keystone XL would further drive oil sand activity and hold Obama to his word.
Group two: the politically influential
During the 2012 election cycle, Obama declared his support for the southern portion of Keystone XL.
“Today, we’re making this new pipeline from Cushing to the gulf a priority,” Obama said in Cushing, Oklahoma, two months after deciding to delay decision on the northern part of Keystone in January of 2012.
“We’ll develop as much oil and gas as we can, in a safe way,” Obama told students in Ohio, the stop after Oklahoma, “but we’re also going to develop wind power and solar power and advanced biofuels.”
A month later, Obama attended a fundraiser put on by billionaire Democratic donor Tom Steyer, whose interest in Keystone XL was piqued after the White House protest in 2011. Steyer is an enthusiastic environmentalist, and gathered 15 top donors to persuade Obama to make his indecision on Keystone a decisive no.
President Obama did not give an answer, but further hemmed and hawed about climate change. One of Steyer’s political aides told The New Yorker that “the clear takeaway for Tom was that the President issued us a challenge. Go out there and make the public-policy case as to why this pipeline is not in our country’s best interest.” This was the same challenge Obama would later issue to activists in 2013.
Tom Steyer had worked on projects before with former Clinton operative Chris Lehane, and for the 2012 election cycle, Lehane advised Steyer his money was best used on ads. So Steyer funded attack ads against Massachusetts Representative Steve Lynch, who was for the pipeline, in favor of current Senator Ed Markey, who was against it. Markey won, and Steyer continued looking for projects opposing the pipeline.
Steyer’s continued successes against Keystone and his political clout in California put pressure on Obama, intensifying the growing sense of responsibility to reject the project in order to leave a green legacy in his final term in the White House. When Steyer backed Hillary Clinton early in 2015 despite her quiet stance on Keystone at the time, it was with full knowledge that Keystone was a fight he had already won.
Group three: the locals
Before Keystone XL was a public issue, indigenous people in Canada, collectively called First Nations, had already been protesting oil sands for decades. Indigenous groups around Alberta had already seen the devastating effects that oil sand extraction had on their land, but hadn’t been able to stop the original Keystone project. Armed with legislative and procedural knowledge from their first fight, First Nations reached out to help US Native Americans stop Keystone XL.
The threat of the pipeline harming American land “was a major wedge with the environmental community, but [defeating Keystone XL] also would depend on tribal pushback,” anti-Keystone leader Clayton Thomas-Müller of First Nations told Grist.
Mobilizing tribal councils native to the US, the tribes in both countries worked together to write a declaration opposing Keystone XL and handed it directly to Obama in 2011 during his yearly dinner with tribal leaders.
States like South Dakota had quietly approved of Keystone in 2010, but when local Native American tribes caught wind of the issue, they took action. The Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota set up the first of many spirit camps that would emerge in tribes across three states, meant for prayer for protection against Keystone XL. A year later in 2015, the Rosebud Sioux Spirit Camp was still standing, with inhabitants swearing that the camp would be used as a camp for protesters the pipeline was passed.
While Indian tribes were organizing against Keystone, Nebraskan Jane Kleeb started gaining real momentum leading locals against Keystone through her organization Bold Nebraska. The idea behind Bold Nebraska was introduce progressive ideas to traditionally red Nebraska.
In 2010, the pipeline’s route ran through the Sandhills in northern Nebraska and over the Ogallala aquifer, the backbone of agriculture in the Great Plains. There was possibility of spills, which could leak and compromise the water that was essential to the area and harm the ecologically sensitive Sandhills.
This made Keystone XL was the perfect environmental issue for Bold Nebraska to stand against, because it posed a dramatic, scary threat to Nebraskan farmers’ land. Using this information, and some argue scare tactics, Kleeb united locals otherwise unlikely to fight for a progressive cause against the pipeline.
The protests of fervent locals caused the Nebraskan governor to call a special session of lawmakers in 2011 who drafted a proposal to avoid the aquifer. This caused the State Department to delay decision on Keystone and forced TransCanada to reapply.
So in 2012, TransCanada submitted a new permit that kept the original route but splintered into northern and southern parts. A law that year allowed the Nebraskan governor to go around the state Public Service Commission, and he signed off on the pipeline. Obama expedited the southern portion for leverage in his reelection campaign.
Early the next year, the governor approved a new route that would circumvent the hills but still cross over part of the aquifer. Local activists were not happy.
“OK, you’ve got our attention,” wrote the White House in an email to Jane Kleeb, she told Grist, after an week-long anti-Keystone protest in April 2014 dubbed “Reject and Protect”. The theme? “Cowboys and Indians.”
That January, the State Department had released a study on Keystone XL stating that the oil would be extracted regardless of whether the pipeline was built or not. This was hotly contested by environmentalists.
But in the meantime, a court case was in the works — Bold Nebraska had filed a case against the law that allowed the governor to sign off on the pipeline two years ago, and in February a Nebraska judge ruled that the law was invalid. This forced the State Department to further delay decision on the pipeline.
With this momentum, “Reject and Protect” was organized in a major collaboration that brought together the entire coalition of environmental groups against Keystone, including Bold Nebraska, the indigenous groups, 350.org, Sierra Club, and the NRDC. During the event, Native Americans set up tepees and educated curious passerby. At the end of the week, all groups joined for a march on the National Mall.
The fight was long from over, but the pressure put on by the protesters and political donors increased pressure on the White House. It grew increasingly more likely that Obama would reject Keystone.
Earlier this year, congressmen tried rushing a bill giving the pipeline the federal approval it needed. The Republican controlled Congress passed the legislation, but Obama issued a veto.
He did not give a decisive no on the pipeline, though criticized Congress for trying to “circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest.” The Senate lacked the votes to overturn the veto, and Keystone continued in limbo.
Then, a defining moment: on the second of November, the pipeline’s director asked the administration to put the project on hold — essentially admitting defeat with Obama in hopes that the 2016 election puts a Republican in office. Environmentalists rejoice, but want a decisive rejection from the President.
Finally, four days later, Obama announces that he is going to reject Keystone XL.
“America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change,” Obama said, “and frankly, approving this project would have undercut that leadership.” This announcement is just in time for the Paris climate talks at the end of this month, where he plans on continuing to establish his legacy as a president tough on climate change.
Though Keystone XL is not completely dead, President Obama’s decision fundamentally changed the environmental movement. Environmentalists will find their issues have more political relevance. Activists are going to focus even further on mitigating the supply of fossil fuels and ending the administration’s “all-of-the-above” energy strategy.
They will not be easy fights, and, like Keystone, will require all hands on deck. Environmentalists still face an uphill battle — but now, with renewed hope.