For environmentalists dedicated to killing it, President Barack Obama’s rejection of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline unleashed a moment of euphoria. Activists celebrated with tequila shots at Sierra Club headquarters in San Francisco and in Lafayette Square across from the White House, site of the first anti-Keystone protests in 2011, when to most people it was just another pipeline.
But last Friday’s presidential “no” to the 1,200-mile (1931 km) pipeline out of Alberta’s oil sands may signal more than just a single, if remarkable, win for environmentalists. It stands to sharpen the fissure in the green movement between those who believe direct action can jar the world off its fossil fuel habit, and others who say only a collaborative approach that engages governments and corporations can deliver the large-scale solutions required to keep global temperatures in check.
For now, defeating Keystone has given oxygen to green groups that focus on keeping the dirtiest fossil fuels in the ground before they even are burned.
Belief that the world must refrain from extracting vast amounts of its known oil, coal and gas reserves has been gaining scientific and political traction among those who argue the humanity cannot risk allowing global temperatures to rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.
For many environmentalists, that urgency means less focus on lengthy international negotiations, such the Paris summit this December that seeks a consensus among world leaders on how to cut carbon emissions.
Instead, they favor demonstrations and legal actions that target not just energy projects like the oil sands, but the supporting infrastructure of railways, ports and pipelines that brings the most carbon intensive energy to market.
That spirit – dubbed “blockadia” by author Naomi Klein – has seen citizen activists delay coal exports to Asia at U.S. West Coast terminals, win a moratorium against oil and gas fracking in New York state, and led to “kayaktivists” swarming oil rigs leaving Seattle’s port as part of Royal Dutch Shell’s
Keystone’s defenders argue that its opponents scored a hollow victory, insisting the crude will still reach U.S. refiners by rail. (Graphic: //graphics.thomsonreuters.com/15/keystone/#section-figures)
But it is uncertain whether railroads can meet the demand at a competitive cost. Last month, Shell canceled its $2 billion, 80,000 barrel a day Carmon Creek project in the oil sands, citing a lack of transport infrastructure.
And activists have vowed to ramp up efforts to block crude oil moving by train as well.
To critics, stopping a single project like Keystone puts feel-good theatrics ahead of real gains in cutting carbon emissions.
“It’s all the stuff people love to do,” says Michael Shellenberger, executive director of the Breakthrough Institute that contends only technological change, such as increased capacity of natural gas fracking and nuclear power, has the potential to displace oil and coal.
“The media publicity, the fund-raising, the mass membership mobilization are all incentives to do more of these acts.” he says. “But underneath all that symbolism, only technology has the answers to a problem of this scale, and for that we need to get governments to act.”
Shellenberger and others credit low global crude prices and a world awash in oil and gas for creating conditions that allowed Obama to turn down Keystone without suffering the political pain that might accompany higher gas prices.
“The president understands energy isn’t an issue when prices are low,” says Kevin Book, an energy policy analyst at ClearView Energy Partners in Washington.
Activists counter that years spent lobbying Washington and other capitals have produced meager results, allowing global carbon emissions to continue to rise. They were stung by the failure to get a strong treaty out of the 2009 global climate talks in Copenhagen, and by the collapse of U.S. cap and trade legislation the following year that would have regulated industrial carbon emissions.
“With all the lobbyists on earth, environmentalists couldn’t get cap and trade done,” says Bill McKibben, a journalist-turned-climate activist who built his 350.org movement through the spread of his writings on digital media.
“That’s what’s changed: there is now a big, big movement that was not there five years ago,” he says. McKibben was among the hundreds of demonstrators arrested in 2011 in front of the White House.
Michael Brune, head of the Sierra Club, the oldest grassroots environmental group in the U.S., says its members grew uneasy with what they saw as Obama’s “de-prioritization” of climate change after 2010.
When they saw Obama start to express more skepticism about Keystone’s merits in his second term, they ramped up their direct action. Now, says Brune, “there are hardly any new proposals for energy infrastructure that don’t have significant protest movements attached to them.”
ATLANTIC OCEAN TO POWDER RIVER
Activists say their new targets include the U.S. Interior Department over the sale of oil and gas leases on federal land, exploratory oil drilling off the Atlantic coast and the strip mining of coal in the vast Powder River Basin in Wyoming.
A similar strategy has guided campaigns against fossil fuel extraction for indigenous groups from Peru to Canada, and in India, where Greenpeace has attempted to block projects ranging from hydro power dams to coal mines.
Martin Kaiser, head of international climate politics at Greenpeace, said the group has dialed down efforts to influence government negotiations in the run-up to Paris in favor of direct action in its campaign to achieve total reliance on renewable energy by 2050.
At the final meetings before Paris in Bonn last month, Greenpeace had 15 activists tracking the negotiations – half the number who attended such preparatory talks ahead of the Copenhagen summit.
“Our strategy has changed,” said Kaiser. “We are putting a lot of our effort into those countries which are major emitters,” citing campaigns in China, the United States, South Africa and Brazil.
Still, there have been setbacks. The Indian government last week expelled Greenpeace, ostensibly for violating financing laws but clearly after the organization became a thorn in the side of authorities.
Activists acknowledge that for direct action to succeed, they need projects like Keystone that resonate with the wider public.
“Keystone put a fire under everybody’s ass that had been lost,” said ForestEthics communications director Eddie Scher on Friday, making his way to Lafayette Square to toast the win.
Scher says the pipeline debate offered a simple perspective on the often complicated politics of climate change.
“There is no such thing as “clean oil” but if we are going to get serious about dealing with climate disruption, the worst stuff is what you stop first,” he said. “And we have a long list.”
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner, Bruce Wallace and Alister Doyle; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)