Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
Demonstrators line up in front of the White House in Washington, DC on Nov. 6, 2011. Thousands of people descended on the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline.
Demonstrators line up in front of the White House in Washington, DC on Nov. 6, 2011. Thousands of people descended on the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
Bill McKibben is a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College and co-founder of 350.org, a global grassroots organizing campaign on climate change.
Conventional wisdom has it that the next election will be fought exclusively on the topic of jobs. But President Obama's announcement last week that he would postpone a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline until after the 2012 election, which may effectively kill the project, makes it clear that other issues will weigh in—and that, oddly enough, one of them might even be climate change.
The pipeline decision was a true upset. Everyone—and I mean everyone who "knew" how these things work—seemed certain that the president would approve it. The National Journal runs a weekly poll of "energy insiders"—that is, all the key players in Washington. A month to the day before the Keystone XL postponement, this large cast of characters was "virtually unanimous" in guaranteeing that it would be approved by year's end.
Transcanada Pipeline, the company that was going to build the 1,700-mile pipeline from the tar-sands fields of Alberta, Canada, through a sensitive Midwestern aquifer to the Gulf of Mexico, certainly agreed. After all, they'd already mowed the strip and prepositioned hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pipe, just waiting for the permit they thought they'd bought with millions in lobbying gifts and other maneuvers. Happily, activists across the country weren't smart enough to know they'd been beaten, and so they staged the largest civil disobedience action in 35 years, not to mention ringing the White House with people, invading Obama campaign offices, and generally proving that they were willing to fight.
No permanent victory was won. Indeed, just yesterday Transcanada agreed to reroute the pipeline in Nebraska in an effort to speed up the review, though that appears not to change the schedule. Still, we're waiting for the White House to clarify that they will continue to fully take climate change into account in their evaluation. But even that won't be final. Obama could just wait for an election victory and then approve the pipeline—as any Republican victor certainly would. Chances are, nonetheless, that the process has now gotten so messy that Transcanada's pipeline will die of its own weight, in turn starving the tar-sands oil industry and giving a boost to the global environment. Of course, killing the pipeline will hardly solve the problem of global warming (though heavily exploiting those tar sands would, in NASA scientist James Hansen's words, mean "game over for the climate.")
In this line of work, where victories of any kind are few and far between, this was a real win. It began with indigenous activists, spread to Nebraska ranchers, and eventually turned into the biggest environmental flashpoint in many years. And it owed no small debt to the Occupy Wall Street protesters shamefully evicted from Zuccotti Park last night, who helped everyone understand the power of corporate money in our daily lives. That these forces prevailed shocked most pundits precisely because it's common wisdom that they're not the sort of voters who count, certainly not in a year of economic trouble.
In fact, the biggest reason the realists had no doubts the pipeline would get its permit, via a State Department review and a presidential thumbs-up of that border-crossing pipeline, was because of the well-known political potency of the jobs argument in bad economic times. Despite endless lazy reporting on the theme of jobs versus the environment, there were actually no net jobs to be had from the pipeline. It was always a weak argument, since the whole point of a pipeline is that, once it's built, no one needs to work there. In addition, as the one study not paid for by Transcanada made clear, the project would kill as many jobs as it would create.
The Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson finally demonstrated this late in the game with a fine report taking apart Transcanada's job estimates. (The 20,000 jobs endlessly taken for granted assumed, among other stretches, that modern dance troupes would move to Nebraska, where part of the pipeline would be built, to entertain pipeline workers.) Still, the jobs trope remained, and you can be sure that the Chamber of Commerce will run 1,000 ads during the 2012 presidential campaign trying to hammer it home. And you can be sure the White House knew that, which was why it was such a tough call for them—and why the pressure of a movement among people whose support matters to them made a difference.
Let's assume the obvious then: that one part of their recent calculations that led to the postponement decision might just be the suspicion that they will actually win votes thanks to the global-warming question in the next election.