Environmentalists Face Day of Reckoning on Keystone Pipeline

President Barack Obama speaks at the southern site of the Keystone XL pipeline on March 22, 2012 in Cushing, Oklahoma. Obama is pressing federal agencies to expedite the section of the Keystone XL pipeline between Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast.
National Journal
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Dec. 30, 2013, 1 a.m.

Here’s something to watch in 2014: the col­lect­ive psyche of the green move­ment.

If Pres­id­ent Obama green-lights the Key­stone pipeline, the move­ment will face ques­tions about its tac­tics and goals at a level un­seen since ma­jor cli­mate-change le­gis­la­tion col­lapsed on Cap­it­ol Hill in 2010.

“If the pipeline is ap­proved, it’s a de­feat for 350.org, Si­erra Club, et al, with no real strategy for what comes next,” said Alex Trem­bath, a policy ana­lyst with the Break­through In­sti­tute, an en­vir­on­ment­al think tank whose founders have of­ten cri­ti­cized move­ment tac­tics.

Whatever the de­cision, it will be a de­fin­ing mo­ment for a move­ment that has had its ups and downs un­der Obama.

After the 2010 cli­mate-bill de­feat, some ana­lysts and act­iv­ists wondered wheth­er sev­er­al big green groups, such as the En­vir­on­ment­al De­fense Fund, had launched a tac­tic­ally shaky cam­paign that re­quired too many con­ces­sions be­fore fail­ing out­right.

Among the cri­ti­cisms of the cap-and-trade cam­paign: too much hope that a few Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans would come along (they didn’t); an in­side-Con­gress strategy without enough out­side pres­sure; and too much foot­sie with big cor­por­ate play­ers. 

Some of the same kind of soul-search­ing will oc­cur if (and it’s only an “if”) Obama ap­proves Key­stone, a de­cision that’s likely to come in 2014.

But Dan Beck­er, a long­time Si­erra Club vet­er­an who now dir­ects the Safe Cli­mate Cam­paign, doesn’t think los­ing on Key­stone would be the same kind of de­mor­al­iz­ing mo­ment as the col­lapse of the cap-and-trade bill in 2010.

“This is very dif­fer­ent from the cap-and-trade bill, which I per­son­ally thought was the wrong ap­proach and was not something the grass­roots cared about or sup­por­ted,” he said. “Would I have chosen this?,” he said of the Key­stone fight. “Maybe not, but it has brought en­ergy in­to the move­ment, it has brought new ad­her­ents in, it has brought new lead­er­ship in.”

And to be sure Key­stone, however it turns out, is not a re­run of the cap-and-trade fight. The cam­paigns have been very dif­fer­ent. This time, en­vir­on­ment­al­ists have tar­geted a single White House de­cision and waged an out­side-in mass cam­paign with a dif­fer­ent set of lead­ers — first and fore­most,Bill McK­ib­ben of the up­start 350.org.

Oth­ers in­clude Si­erra Club Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Mi­chael Brune, a vet­er­an of the pu­gil­ist­ic Rain­forest Ac­tion Net­work, who has brought some of that rabble-rous­ing to Si­erra since 2010.

A lot of cli­mate act­iv­ists are all-in, trans­form­ing Key­stone from a pro­ject en route to quiet ap­prov­al in­to the highest-pro­file cli­mate battle in re­cent years.

“It is not go­ing to be pleas­ant if it is ap­proved,” said Robert J. Brulle, a Drexel Uni­versity so­ci­olo­gist who stud­ies en­vir­on­ment­al move­ments. “I think that one thing we can be pretty sure of is that the mar­riage between the greens and the Demo­crat­ic Party will be brought un­der pretty severe re­view.” 

Crit­ics who say cli­mate change is a big prob­lem but that Key­stone is the wrong battle are ready to pounce. Some take is­sue with en­vir­on­ment­al­ists who say Key­stone XL would be a ma­jor con­trib­ut­or to green­house-gas emis­sions to be­gin with (it all de­pends on how much you think it’s a linch­pin for ex­pan­sion of car­bon-in­tens­ive oil-sands de­vel­op­ment).

Trem­bath, who calls coal-fired power a much big­ger en­emy than Key­stone, ar­gued that even block­ing the pipeline would be a “nom­in­al vic­tory … without any ap­par­ent path for­ward.”

The cri­ti­cism is well un­der­way even be­fore a de­cision is rendered.

New York magazine’s Jonath­an Chait, in late Oc­to­ber, agreed with the ar­gu­ment that stop­ping Key­stone would do very little to slow green­house-gas emis­sions, call­ing EPA plans to reg­u­late ex­ist­ing coal-fired plants as a far more im­port­ant fight. “The whole cru­sade in­creas­ingly looks like a bizarre mis­al­loc­a­tion of polit­ic­al at­ten­tion,” he wrote.

But Key­stone crit­ics say the fight is both con­sequen­tial for the cli­mate and a move­ment-build­er. It has in­cluded civil dis­obedi­ence and mass ral­lies that saw young act­iv­ists pour in­to Wash­ing­ton.

“We had not seen that type of in-the-street ac­tion for dec­ades,” said Bill Snape, seni­or coun­sel for the Cen­ter for Bio­lo­gic­al Di­versity. “That has re­ju­ven­ated the move­ment. It has re­kindled a spir­it that was miss­ing.”

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