On Earth Day 2014, a group of farmers, ranchers and Native Americans who live along the route of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline marched and rode horseback through Washington, D.C., wearing cowboy hats and feather headdresses. On the National Mall, they erected tipis and held ceremonies; a couple of days later, they gave a hand-painted tipi to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, in President Barack Obama’s honor. They gave the tipi the same names that the Lakota and Crow gave Obama in 2008—“Man Who Helps the People” and “One Who Helps People Throughout the Land.”
The message was implicit: The man who helps the people rejects the Keystone pipeline. In November, Obama did just that, handing the climate movement its clearest political victory yet.
The fight over Keystone XL gained national attention when prominent environmentalists like Bill McKibben positioned it as a litmus test of Obama’s commitment to fighting climate change. The pipeline would have connected the Canadian tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries; most environmentalists argued that it shouldn’t be built because it would lock in the continued exploitation of one of the dirtiest fuels on Earth.
But for those who marched on Washington last year, the battle was more personal. Farmers and ranchers in Nebraska feared the pipeline would leak, polluting their land and water, and jeopardizing their livelihoods. Tribes worried about water contamination, disturbances to treaty lands and the possibility of man camps popping up near their communities and increasing crime. Many landowners said TransCanada, the company behind Keystone, tried to bully them into signing easements.
“They didn’t like that a private corporation could use eminent domain for their own gain,” says Jane Kleeb, who organized opposition in Nebraska. “And they really didn’t like that it was a foreign corporation.”
Together, the self-described cowboys and Indians and the climate crusaders proved a potent political force. Here was a project that could be framed as a high-stakes climate issue that got regular folks fired up, too—something the 2010 effort to pass federal carbon legislation achieved only insofar as it provoked rabid opposition from Tea Partiers. That cap-and-trade bill was designed by a handful of big green groups to be palatable to big business, but included little to inspire popular support—and environmentalists made scant effort to build a broad coalition to fight for it.
With Keystone, the national groups gave the local concerns additional weight, and the locals provided the national fight with unexpected—and often conservative—spokespeople. It helped that, all over the country, a slew of other proposed pipelines, fracking projects, fossil-fuel export terminals, natural gas storage facilities and coal and oil trains were sparking loud and sustained local opposition. Keystone became a common enemy activists rallied around. They brought populist passion to the national environmental movement—a fervor that it’s lacked for years, but that’s crucial for pressuring politicians to take stands on controversial issues.
“Keystone was a proof-of-concept that infrastructure fights can garner some political constituency and can be won,” says Eric de Place, policy director for the Sightline Institute, a Northwest think tank that opposes coal exports and crude-by-rail facilities. “I spent a huge portion of my life working on carbon pricing and trying to explain demand curves. But when an oil train goes off the rails and explodes”—as has happened in North Dakota and Canada—“it really highlights for people just how dangerous the fossil fuel infrastructure is.”
Northwestern communities have already beaten back proposals for major new developments to export U.S. coal to Asia, and now they’re working to defeat additional coal and oil train and shipping terminals. Days after Obama rejected Keystone, the Portland, Ore., City Council passed a resolution opposing any new infrastructure that would increase the city’s capacity to store or transport fossil fuels.
“Taken collectively, there’s real momentum against any new fossil fuel infrastructure,” says Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune.
Should oil prices rise, it’s easy to imagine that momentum encountering more friction. In USA Today recently, Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute and Steven Hayward of Pepperdine University argued that the “fracking revolution” that flooded the market with oil and dropped prices is what really enabled Obama to kill Keystone.
In rejecting it, Obama acknowledged that to confront climate change, we need to start leaving some fossil fuels where they are. It was a statement that would have been hard to imagine at the start of his tenure, when “drill baby drill” dominated the energy debate, as well as a symbolic win for climate activists, who are coalescing behind a new campaign to “keep it in the ground.”
That idea is gaining some traction. This month, Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., introduced a bill to end the leasing of federal lands and waters for fossil-fuel extraction. The gesture shocked even environmentalists.
“It’s radical,” de Place admitted, in a delighted, if slightly baffled, tone. “This is the sort of thing that only a few people were talking about five years ago. Now, with the rejection of Keystone, we can contemplate a Senate bill that seemed unsayable a few years ago. It’s evidence that there’s been a broad, titanic shift in the way people talk about energy.”
This piece originally appeared in High Country News.