Leaders of the fight, including writer Bill McKibben and California billionaire Tom Steyer, have marshaled an army of activists worried about climate change and raised the political stakes on the issue.
They lured dollars and enthusiastic recruits to their cause, inspiring a new generation of environmental activism.
But over the past three years, as they have devoted tremendous resources to the fight against TransCanada Corp.’s proposed oil pipeline, they potentially have diverted vast resources from other goals many environmentalists consider more important, such as limiting power plant pollution and taxing carbon emissions.
Alex Trembath, a policy analyst with the Breakthrough Institute, calls the Keystone XL fight “a sideshow” that distracts from more meaningful climate solutions such as spurring new technologies to drive down the use of oil.
“Opposing one pipeline — or even opposing a bunch of pipelines — is going to have a very marginal effect compared to what we should really be focusing on,” Trembath said. “The idea that we’re really going to transition off petroleum by blocking one pipeline from Canada to the United States is just ludicrous.”
‘A litmus test’
Opponents say the proposed $5.4 billion pipeline would be a catalyst to unlocking oil sands development in Alberta, Canada, where a dense, sticky hydrocarbon called bitumen is harvested by strip-mining and energy-intense steam-based techniques.
Environmentalists view the decision on whether to permit the border-crossing pipeline as a test of President Barack Obama’s green credentials and a symbol representing much deeper, more complicated climate-change questions.
Sarah Ladislaw, energy program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Keystone XL has become “a litmus test for where the country stands on a low-carbon pathway.”
“But my question is, what do you do after Keystone?” Ladislaw said. “Yes or no, it is not the last pipeline that will get permitted.”
Cruz to GOP: Stop obsessing over Keystone XL
As the Obama administration moves closer to a final decision on the pipeline, possibly this year, more environmentalists are publicly questioning the single-minded Keystone focus.
Four members of Rising Tide North America, a network of advocates for reducing carbon emissions linked to climate change, warned last fall that a final verdict will remove the one element sustaining the U.S. climate movement.
“Once Barack Obama makes his decision on the pipeline, be it approval or rejection, the keystone (in the U.S. climate movement) will disappear,” they wrote in an opinion piece published online. “Without this piece, we could see the weight of the rage tumble down, potentially losing throngs of newly inspired climate activists. To build the climate justice movement we need, we can have no keystone, no singular solution, campaign, project or decision maker.”
Many leading environmentalists, however, insist the fight is more substantive than symbolic.
“There’s more and more evidence that climate emissions are going up, and these are the dirtiest fuels on the planet,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “There has to be a strategic decision whether we’re going to go down a clean-energy path or continually go ahead with fossil-fuel development that is destructive to the environment.”
The anti-Keystone movement can be traced to former NASA climate scientist James Hansen’s dire warning in June 2011 that if the pipeline were built it would be “exceedingly difficult to control the tar sands monster” and would be “game over” in the fight against climate change.
Although the math behind Hansen’s prediction has been questioned, Ryan Lizza described in the September issue of The New Yorker how the warning became a rallying cry for environmental leaders desperate to find some unifying mission after breakdowns in international climate negotiations and a failed bid to enact a cap-and-trade system that would have put a price on carbon emissions.
The pipeline issue involves few of the nuances and policy conflicts that marked the cap-and-trade debate in 2010.
Fundamentally, the future of Keystone XL doesn’t depend on 535 lawmakers in Congress or an agreement from world leaders. It boils down to just one man: Obama.
“Keystone has reinvigorated the environmental spirit on the streets in a way we haven’t seen in two decades,” said Bill Snape of the Center for Biological Diversity.
McKibben, who co-founded the activist group 350.org, takes pride in the emails Keystone opponents have sent to lawmakers in Washington and widespread acts of civil disobedience, including protests during construction of the southern leg of the pipeline in Texas, which was not subject to a presidential permit.
“The fight to shut down the pipeline sparked a grass-roots movement that has changed the culture of environmentalism,” he wrote in a December Rolling Stone piece.
McKibben admits, though, that the focus on Keystone has had limitations.
“The reason for fighting Keystone all along was not just to block further expansion of the tar sands; we also hoped that doing the right thing would jump-start Washington in the direction of real climate action,” McKibben wrote. “Instead, the effort necessary to hold off this one pipeline has kept environmentalists distracted as Obama has opened the Arctic and sold off the Powder River Basin, as he’s fracked and drilled.”
Others wonder what will happen to all of the passion directed at Keystone XL once the issue is settled, whether the pipeline is permitted or not.
“There’s been no signal of what the long-term or the ultimate policy goal is,” Trembath said. “I see a very motivated and very satisfied activist core who have been successful in delaying the decision on the pipeline, but that hasn’t given me any comfort or sense of what the bridge to a long-term organizing or policy solution is.”
Voicing opinions: Keystone comments rushing in to State Dept.
Proposed Environmental Protection Agency limits on carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants could do far more to constrain heat-trapping greenhouse gases than blocking Keystone XL.
According to a State Department analysis last month, burning the oil unlocked by Keystone XL could add an extra 1.3 million to 27.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year, if it displaced more conventional crudes that emit less.
That represents just 0.02 percent to 0.4 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, which were 6.7 billion metric tons in 2011. By contrast, power plants represent a third of U.S. emissions and about 60 percent of those tied to stationary sources.
Reining those in “is going to have a much bigger emissions effect in the long run than one pipeline,” Trembath said.
Beinecke, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, insisted the environmental movement isn’t giving short shrift to the power plant policies.
“People are galvanized in every state across this country to address this issue,” she said, noting that 3 million comments were filed supporting the EPA’s proposed rules on power plant emissions.
“The environmental community is bringing a huge amount of resources into ensuring we get strong regulations for existing power plants,” said Anthony Swift, an attorney with the council’s international program.
“But at the same time,” Swift added, “Keystone has really opened up a public debate about the direction we’re moving in our energy future. And I think that’s an important discussion to be having at a national level.”
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