Obama’s Choice to Alienate Environmental Activists and Approve the Keystone XL Pipeline
Somewhere around thirty-five to forty thousand people came to the National Mall in Washington, DC, for one of the largest climate rallies in history. Those demonstrating demanded that President Barack Obama honor his inaugural pledge and take action on climate change. They also called on Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline being built by TransCanada.
The major rally came days after forty-eight were arrested in front of the White House in a planned civil disobedience action. Though the Sierra Club weakly floated a disclaimer that they were not here to be critical of Obama, their executive director, Michael Brune, and president, Allison Chin, broke a ban on civil disobedience the environmental organization had in place for 120 years. Bill McKibben, Julian Bond, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Connor Kennedy and Daryl Hannah were arrested as well.
It seems like post-Obama’s re-election the environmental movement is renewing its energy and it is worthwhile to consider the movement to stop the pipeline’s impact so far and the likelihood that it stops the pipeline from finally being approved.
In the months of August and September in 2011, over a thousand were arrested in sit-ins that occurred for two straight weeks in front of the White House. The actions organized by Tar Sands Action effectively called attention to construction of the pipeline and why it should not be constructed. And then, on September 17, 2011, Occupy Wall Street began and the Occupy movement erupted. Many involved in Occupy protests took up the cause of stopping the pipeline.
In November 2011, actions by concerned citizens appeared to have had an effect. Obama publicly stated:
The State Department’s in charge of analyzing this, because there’s a pipeline coming in from Canada. They’ll be giving me a report over the next several months, and, you know, my general attitude is, what is best for the American people? What’s best for our economy both short term and long term? But also, what’s best for the health of the American people? Because we don’t want, for example, aquifers that are adversely affected, folks in Nebraska obviously would be directly impacted, and so we want to make sure that we’re taking the long view on these issues.
We need to encourage domestic natural gas and oil production. We need to make sure that we have energy security and aren’t just relying on Middle East sources. But there’s a way of doing that and still making sure that the health and safety of the American people and folks in Nebraska are protected, and that’s how I’ll be measuring these recommendations when they come to me.
The statement indicated Obama would be the one personally responsible for making the final decision on authorizing the pipeline.
On January 18, 2012, the Obama administration decided to not issue a permit before February 21 after Congress imposed a 60-day deadline on a “process for the permit as part of a deal to extend a payroll-tax break and unemployment benefits for two months.” This was largely viewed as a victory by leaders like McKibben, who reacted, “What you’ve done these past eight months is quite amazing—and against all the odds. We’ve won no permanent victory (environmentalists never do) but we have shown that spirited people can bring science back to the fore.”
However, just over a month and a half later, Obama held a rally for his presidential re-election campaign in Cushing, Oklahoma, an oil town, where he boasted, “Under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years.” He said he directed his administration over the last three years to open up millions of acres of land for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. “We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some. So, we are drilling all over the place.”
Obama addressed the “glut” of oil, how there wasn’t enough pipeline capacity to move it to the Gulf of Mexico for refining. He added, “Right now, a company called TransCanada has applied to build a new pipeline to speed more oil from Cushing to state-of-the-art refineries down on the Gulf Coast. Today, I’m directing my administration to cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles and make this project a priority.” He issued an executive order to expedite construction and the permit process for the pipeline.
If the denial of a permit in January was a victory for the movement, this executive order, rally and speech by Obama was a loss. Yet, with his re-election looming, established environmental organizations opted to weakly point out how Big Oil has great influence over the political process instead of returning to the White House fence for another round of civil disobedience action.
The Tar Sands Blockade mobilized in August 2012. Dozens of people engaged in direct action chaining or locking themselves to TransCanada’s construction equipment at various points along the planned pipeline route. They formed a “tree blockade” and built wooden platforms in the trees to disrupt TransCanada’s ability to destroy forest to construct the pipeline. Activists sought to form relationships with landowners that had been bullied by TransCanada into giving up their land for construction. And, for the most part, it had the effect those taking action wanted because TransCanada decided to file a lawsuit to bully individuals and groups mobilizing into halting their activity.
Weeks ago, the governor of Nebraska, Dave Heineman officially approved a reroute of the pipeline to avoid the Sandhills region that had been suggested back in 2011. The decision to avoid the Ogallala Aquifer, a vital source of drinking water for the Great Plains, neutralized a lot of opposition among Nebraskans. This approval by Heineman may have increased the likelihood that Obama approves the pipeline, as he had been concerned with polluting the aquifer but never against the idea of a pipeline.
The nearly 500-mile long pipeline crosses into the United States from Canada so the ultimate decision involves the State Department. The New York Times published a story over the weekend outlining “the choice” Obama has to make: “a choice between alienating environmental advocates who overwhelmingly supported his candidacy or causing a deep and perhaps lasting rift with Canada.”
The Times framed the story as a false choice, which establishment media often do. Setup this way, Obama’s final choice would also not involve domestic considerations. Obama has himself made this about energy security. The decision could be a choice between alienating the oil industry or environmental activists.
Regardless, Obama is likely to choose to alienate environmental activists. The cold-blooded cost-benefit analysis that this pragmatic politician is relying upon probably does not favor the Sierra Club, 350.org, the Tar Sands Blockade, the indigenous people of Canada and the US, landowners, farmers and/or other concerned citizens who have engaged in demonstrations.
The State Department has been found to have close ties to a lobbyist for TransCanada. A cable released by WikiLeaks from October 2009 showed diplomatic interest in helping to improve “oil sands messaging” to make dirty oil production less controversial. The Los Angeles Times reported in October 2011 that Obama’s re-election campaign had had “hired a former lobbyist for the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline as a top adviser.”
That does not mean that environmental groups and concerned Americans cannot have an impact and, perhaps, even stop the pipeline that will significantly contribute to climate change from being built. What it means is everyone involved in protesting has to recognize that Obama has actively engaged in moving the proposed pipeline project closer to approval by trying to address some of the environmental concerns. He does not see the oil pipeline itself as the environmental risk. He thinks that TransCanada can build a pipeline that will not impact the health or safety of Americans and the environment.
Those engaged in action should understand that creative and unpredictable action is what has the most potential to stop the pipeline. Civil disobedience or sit-ins in successive rounds could have an effect. If at different hours of the day and even unplanned, actions could be effective. If TransCanada offices were continuous sites of protest, that could have an impact. If offices of people involved in the decision-making process were occupied and speeches of people involved, who will bear responsibility for the final decision, were disrupted, that could have an effect. If there was obvious synergy between what groups are doing in the US and what groups are doing in Canada to stop the pipeline, that could have an impact. And, if everyone demonstrating channeled the spirit of the Occupy movement, not the spirit of MoveOn.org, that could keep the Obama administration on its toes.
When President Obama and his staff cannot predict the next move, that is when Obama will further delay decision-making or give up on trying to construct the northern leg of the pipeline altogether. Absent regular action similar to what was seen in 2011 and what the Tar Sands Blockade engaged in during 2012, the pipeline will surely be authorized.