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In Keystone XL rejection, many see a campaign on climate that won’t fade away

Friday’s victory by environmentalists can plausibly be seen not as an end point but as the birth of a potent, continuing campaign on the order of the U.S. civil rights movement.

President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL project had been so thoroughly telegraphed that it may have seemed an anticlimax.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Keystone isn’t a perfect battlefield, but neither was Selma or Stonewall. In a war, you don’t always get to choose where to fight.

Michael Grunwald in Time magazine, February 2013.

President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL project had been so thoroughly telegraphed that it may have seemed an anticlimax in our national narrative on climate policy.

But in much of the analysis and comment that has followed, there’s a plausible suggestion to see Friday’s victory not as an end point but as the birth of a potent, continuing campaign on the order of the U.S. civil rights movement.

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Remember that KXL’s chances of winning its presidential permit were generally thought to be very good, even guaranteed, for most of the six years it was under review by a State Department inclined to marginalize environmental objections. And Obama himself gave an important blessing to a different phase of Transcanada Corp.’s project in 2012, announcing a directive to his administration to “cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles” and get the project done.

All along, the president has taken many an opportunity to call out anti-pipeline protesters (and sometimes supporters, too) for exaggerating KXL’s environmental negatives (as well as its job-creation positives). He did it again on Friday, reminding us that “the Keystone pipeline has occupied what I, frankly, consider an overinflated role in our political discourse”:

It became a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter.  And all of this obscured the fact that this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others.

Remember, too, that he could have ducked the decision at some benefit to his agenda and his party, but didn’t.

Last February, he risked a major veto override when he rejected a bill, backed by strong majorities in both the U.S. House and Senate, to take matters into gongressional hands and give Transcanada the damn permit already.

Last week, he turned down Transcanada’s offer to let him shift the burden to his successor, by suspending action on the permit while the company sorted out some routing issues of supposedly newfound significance in Nebraska.

And then, last Friday, Obama made the announcement that the New Republic’s Rebecca Leber assessed as “his most significant, if symbolic, move to limit the growth of the world’s fossil fuel supply. …  The Keystone refusal is the kind of declarative statement environmentalists have long wanted from a world leader, with Obama delivering a message that it’s finally time to keep fossil fuels in the ground.”

Bill McKibben’s analysis

The announcement moved Bill McKibben to even higher praise, and a declaration approaching optimism, in The New Yorker. Obama had become “the first world leader to turn down a major project on climate grounds,” he said, responding to a confluence of three factors:

  • The “relentless campaign” of  “a global movement that has multiplied many times in the past six years,” confronting Obama at nearly every appearance – and eventually confounding a 90 percent consensus among “energy insiders” in the summer of 2011 that he would sign off on KXL permits.
  • The “relentless spread of a new logic about the planet – that we have five times as much carbon in our reserves as we can safely burn,” and that much therefore must be left in the ground.
  • A new “elsewhere to lead,” with prices of solar panels and other renewables technology falling so rapidly that a rapid and relatively painless shift off oil, gas and coal seems possible.

It’s impossible, in the hottest year that humans have ever measured, to feel optimistic. But it’s also impossible to miss the real shift in this battle.

Voice from the other side

A voice on the other side was the Washington Post’s Steven Stromberg, who called Obama’s decision a capitulation based on conclusions that the project wasn’t in the national interest because it “wouldn’t really help the economy or U.S. energy security, which is not a great reason to reject a project the country’s largest trading partner wants.”

Keystone XL was an irrational and insulting litmus test for seriousness about climate change. It made the environmental movement look capricious and immature. It alienated some of those who should be natural allies in the fight against global warming.

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The stunning lack of substance behind the anti-Keystone XL movement should have offended those who care about the real, formidable task of transitioning the economy onto low- and no-emissions technology, which requires a widespread reduction in demand for dirty fuels. Anti-Keystone XL activists have misapplied their energy; the danger is that they will continue to do so.

That brought a rejoinder from David Roberts over at Vox, probably my favorite in the weekend’s stream of KXL commentary for drawing the clearest parallels between this campaign and the civil rights movement a half-century ago.

To dismiss climate activism because it doesn’t do enough to directly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the short term, he says, is “like criticizing the Montgomery bus boycott because it only affected a relative handful of black people. The point of civil rights campaigns was not to free black people from discriminatory systems one at a time. It was to change the culture.”

This is what critics never got about the Keystone campaign: It was not some ready-built tool that was used on one thing and could easily have been turned to something else. It was a small miracle, a confluence of currents, lightning in a jar. …

The Keystone campaign was not only the largest ever movement organized around climate change in the U.S., it was also the most diverse. That’s because Keystone was about more than climate; it was also about local pollution, political corruption, and corporate bullying.

This helps explain why climate activism has primarily manifested as “Blockadia” — blocking and shutting down bad projects is easier to organize around than efficiency or carbon pricing.

And maybe that’s fine. Maybe it isn’t the role of activists to imagine and bring about a new world. Maybe that’s for policymakers, designers, engineers, artists, and entrepreneurs. Maybe the highest and best use of activism is just to make things uncomfortable, and more expensive, for the bad actors benefiting from the unsustainable status quo.

The pipeline/rail fallacy

The lamest pro-KXL argument still standing is that rejecting new pipeline capacity only ensures that more oil will move, more dangerously, by oil train (for a representative sample, see the Strib editorial of Nov. 3, “Keystone XL delay is a setback for public safety in Minnesota.”)

I, too, have written about the hazards of sending oil trains through the hearts of major U.S. cities, and I agree it’s terribly risky. Also: As a guy who tries to sleep on a little boat in the marina at Pepin, Wisconsin, a couple of hundred yards from passing oil trains, for as many weekend nights as he can manage during sailing season, it got my personal as well as professional attention on Saturday when the Burlington Northern Santa Fe lost 18,000 gallons of ethanol from 25 cars that jumped the rails about 20 miles downstream in Alma.

Every sailor I know had the same first thought, I expect: Thank god it wasn’t Bakken crude.

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We talk all the time about the rising frequency of rail traffic on that line, and try not to imagine in too much detail what an oil-train fire could do to the village of Pepin across the tracks, or to Nelson, or Stockholm, Alma, Maiden Rock …

We all understand, as I imagine you do, that whether a load of oil moves by pipeline or rail has little to do with each system’s relative capacity today or 10 years from now, and everything to do with the day-by-day, price-sensitive decisions of oil shippers on how to move product.

Decades of contraction in the rail freight business have moved traffic onto fewer and fewer lines, which become more and more urban with reductions in service to smaller markets. But pipelines pass close to people’s homes, too, and when they’re routed away from settlement they often move into landscapes that are precious and vulnerable for other reasons.

Protecting public safety – and sensitive natural resources  – has little to do with the question of whether a new pipeline should be built, and a lot to do with where it might go, whether it’s KXL or the Sandpiper, or the Alberta Clipper.  The same goes for oil trains, of course.

I suppose we could stop pretending to eliminate the chance of another Lac-Mégantic catastrophe  by slowly tweaking tanker-car standards, and move instead to require rerouting of oil trains away from population centers, on new or upgraded lines if necessary.

Of course, any serious initiative in those directions would set off a battle that dwarfs the six-year food fight over Keystone XL. But I hear there’s a new movement in this country that just may prove equal to the task.