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How An Unlikely Coalition Of Environmental Activists Stopped Keystone XL
A decade ago, Susan Casey-Lefkowitz obtained one among her first eye-opening seems to be at the destruction wrought by the fast-expanding Canadian tar sands industry. A lawyer who specialized in worldwide environmental points, Casey-Lefkowitz was now a coverage advocate at the nonprofit Natural Sources Defense Council, targeted on the group’s rising work in Canada.
Sitting in a darkened hotel convention room with allies from Canadian activist groups, Casey-Lefkowitz (the one U.S. representative in the room) watched a set of slides showing the extent of the industry’s ugly unfold in northern Alberta, and she knew that the environmental movement would have to mobilize in opposition to the devastation – and its potential penalties for your complete planet.
As she would later describe it:
“I did not wish to face my grandchildren 20 years down the highway and know that I had made the flawed alternative at a crossroads moment for preventing local weather change.”
Tar sands weren’t a wholly new risk. A minimum of as far back because the 1930s, boosters had been proclaiming the thick deposits of bitumen in the boreal forest “most likely the biggest potential oil subject on the planet.”
By 2004, production had reached one million barrels per day, and oil companies have been salivating over the potential for more manufacturing and better profits. However the problem wasn’t just getting the thick, silty deposits out of the bottom — which required some of the most important and most destructive open-pit mining operations on earth. Oil companies also had to get the deposits to refineries, after which to market. If the business were to maintain expanding, that might mean more pipelines out of Canada and into the United States.
In the months after her eye-opening experience, Casey-Lefkowitz and her NRDC colleague Liz Barratt-Brown started working with their Canadian counterparts including the Pembina Institute, Environmental Defence Canada, and Greenpeace Canada to combat the industry’s growth. They created a method to raise public consciousness about what was already happening — and the way much worse it might get if the business’s plans went ahead unimpeded.
Their fears had been properly based. In September 2008, whereas U.S. senators Barack Obama and John McCain have been still operating for president, a robust, well-related Canadian firm filed an application with the U.S. State Department. TransCanada wanted fast approval for a 1,seven hundred-mile pipeline that may ship tar sands crude on to refineries on the Gulf Coast, the place the oil might simply be exported overseas.
Alongside the way, the Keystone XL pipeline would cross environmentally sensitive and agriculturally important areas, including Nebraska’s Sandhills and the Refinery Equipment Ogallala Aquifer. It could threaten tribal homelands and improve carbon pollution. Oil spills alongside its rout – almost assured, given the pipeline business’s safety file — would expose farms, ranches, and communities to devastating financial and environmental harm. And yet despite all that, the challenge attracted little public consideration on the time — and, it seemed, there was scant probability of stopping it.
Nicely into President Obama’s second term in workplace, after years of contentious debate and grass-roots activism, Keystone XL has been rejected once and for all. That is the behind-the-scenes story of how a small group of unlikely allies turned what everybody expected to be a routine governmental approval course of into one of the crucial heated environmental battles in U.S. historical past — and prevailed.
In 2006, Canada introduced its advertising marketing campaign for tar sands oil to Washington, D.C. in the type of an exhibit at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall. Sponsored by the oil business and the province of Alberta, it featured cheerful actions for children and a photographic display that purported to show how tar sands mines and wetlands may co-exist. NRDC and its allies had been on the scene — distributing fliers and explaining the actual impact of tar sands mining, telling the performing musicians how ugly it was to see this trade portrayed as “folklife.”
In these early days, the work to stop tar sands was unrewarding. Casey-Lefkowitz and Barratt-Brown trudged from congressional places of work and federal businesses to the White Home, armed with images and sounding the alarm. They confirmed anyone who would pay attention photographs of Canada’s lush inexperienced boreal forest and what happened as soon as the industry dug in — a lunar panorama of mines that stretched one to two miles throughout, surrounded by enormous mounds of sulfur and pet coke from refineries. Predictably, officials had been horrified. But it surely was laborious to get traction for what many viewed as a Canadian downside. Twice, NRDC and its allies had fought pipelines that crossed the border to U.S. refineries; twice, they misplaced those battles.
Then TransCanada utilized for a permit to construct Keystone XL. This mission was so massive and doubtlessly devastating, its penalties so far-reaching and grave, that it gave NRDC and different environmentalist activists the idea to launch a serious campaign against the tar sands.
As a first step, NRDC joined forces with Corporate Ethics Worldwide, a nonprofit that works to promote company responsibility, including within the energy business. CEI had commissioned research into tar sands oil and the awful penalties of its potential enlargement, including the devastation in Canada and contribution to local weather change.
CEI’s Michael Marx became the coordinator of an international campaign in opposition to tar sands, and Kenny Bruno, who was affiliated with CEI, coordinated the U.S. effort. Working with NRDC, Marx and Bruno recruited different groups to the trigger, including Sierra Membership, the National Wildlife Federation, Associates of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters, and Oil Change Worldwide.
Their job was daunting.
The American public knew nearly nothing about tar sands production or its drawbacks. And tar sands boosters had a superb storyline to sell: Why not get oil from pleasant Canada as a substitute of unstable, usually unfriendly international locations in the Middle East Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was a huge fan of tar sands, along with the properly-funded and politically highly effective oil business and a host of influential Washington insiders. The rag-tag environmentalists were outnumbered and could simply be outspent.
Barratt-Brown known as U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and politcal chief on climate change issues, to ask for recommendation.
“He immediately shot again that we needed senators from along the proposed route,” she recalls.
Native opposition would be vital to any cease-the-pipeline effort, and that meant Plains States senators would have to listen to from their constituents. In largely conservative and infrequently oil-pleasant states (KXL would cross Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas), that appeared like a tall order.
In 2009, President Obama deliberate to make his first journey abroad – to Canada, one in all America’s closest allies. For those who wanted to convey attention to the tar sands and the KXL undertaking, it was a huge alternative. The State Division would determine whether or not the pipeline was within the national curiosity, but it was the president who would have final say over whether to problem a permit.
Just earlier than Obama left for his Canadian trip, NASA’s James Hansen, one in every of America’s leading climate scientists, wrote an op-ed warning that the tar sands were “one in all our planet’s biggest threats.” Later, Hansen would famously say that if Canada have been to fully exploit its huge tar sands reserves, it could be “game over” for the climate.
In Ottawa, Obama noted activists’ issues, saying:
We’re very grateful for the connection that we now have with Canada, Canada being our largest vitality supplier. However I think more and more that we have to take under consideration that the issue of climate change and greenhouse gases is something that is going to have an impact on all of us.
Regardless of this encouraging signal, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would later say that her department was “inclined” to sign off on the KXL undertaking. Clearly, one scientist’s op-ed would not be sufficient to reach the administration. In 2010, the State Division issued the first draft of an environmental affect report required earlier than a pipeline permit may very well be issued. The finding: Keystone XL would have “limited antagonistic” impacts. Tar sands proponents celebrated.
But the State Division wouldn’t make the choice alone; different federal agencies wanted to weigh in, and the Environmental Protection Company countered that State’s assessment was “inadequate.” It really useful reviewing a broader vary of environmental points, including the potential impacts of a serious spill. In a foreshadowing of debates to return, the EPA also acknowledged: “We believe the nationwide security implications of expanding the nation’s lengthy-term dedication to a relatively excessive carbon source should even be considered.”
Just 10 days later, the EPA’ s warning proved justified.
A pipeline operated by TransCanada’s greatest competitor, Enbridge Inc. ruptured in Michigan, spilling almost one million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River. Tons of of residents went to the hospital complaining of health issues. And now the activists had another revealing picture to hold round by way of warning — the Enbridge pipeline seemed as if a bomb had exploded inside it.
Enbridge initially denied that its busted pipeline had been carrying tar sands oil, but it was compelled to retract after NRDC’s onEarth journal asked powerful questions and prodded investigators to affirm it. In a subsequent report, NRDC and its allies demonstrated that “dilbit” — the chemically diluted bitumen carried by tar sands pipelines — is “significantly extra corrosive to pipeline techniques than typical crude.”
In different words, tar sands pipelines will, inevitably, leak, with higher affect on the surroundings because of the heavy, thick nature of tar sands crude (which sank to the bottom of the Kalamazoo River, fairly than floating on top).
Tar sands spills require “significant personnel, equipment, provides and other sources” for cleanup, the NRDC report concluded. And certainly, cleanup of the Kalamazoo has value more than $1 billion. Five years later, it remains to be ongoing.
Armed with graphic evidence that tar sands oil was a threat to their land, properties and rivers, NRDC and its allies put new power into connecting with the farmers, ranchers, and tribespeople along the Keystone XL route — those who would suffer most straight from a spill like the one in Kalamazoo.
Certainly one of their staunchest new supporters was Jane Kleeb, a young progressive married to a Nebraska farmer. She had based Daring Nebraska with the thought of fostering neighborhood motion in the state; the more she discovered in regards to the dangers of the pipeline, the extra she realized that this was a trigger that would unify Nebraskans, who be taught in grade school of the significance of defending the Ogallala Aquifer that gives much of their state’s water. A threat to the aquifer was a menace even unlikely allies would perceive.
One of those unlikely allies was a Republican rancher named Randy Thompson. His household had raised cattle for generations on land that TransCanada would need to build the pipeline. He turned the face of a marketing campaign known as All Danger, No Reward, and “I Stand With Randy” became a typical slogan on the indicators and T-shirts of pipeline opponents.
As groups like these coalesced, a national motion was being born. The No Tar Sands Oil marketing campaign, sponsored by groups including CEI, NRDC, Sierra Club, 350.org, Nationwide Wildlife Federation, Pals of the Earth, Greenpeace, and Rainforest Action Community, had a fresh technique.
Previously, Secretary Clinton and the State Department had been the main target of protest. The disastrous ruling of 2010 led the groups to switch their attention to President Obama. Increasingly the activists named him as the decision-maker and directed all public appeals to the White House.
In early 2011, on the eve of a meeting between Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Harper, 86 teams representing hundreds of thousands of Americans — from the Idaho Wildlife Federation to the Texas Conservation Alliance — signed a letter urging the president to reject the pipeline.
That spring, the author and activist Bill McKibben, founding father of the group 350.org, contacted coalition members in regards to the pipeline campaign, testing their appetite for civil disobedience in Washington. All were in favor. In the course of two sizzling weeks through the summer time of 2011, greater than 1,200 individuals were arrested throughout sit-ins on the sidewalk in entrance of the White House, from farmers and ranchers to actress Daryl Hannah.
This was the turning point for the tar sands motion, the moment when James Hansen’s science and Invoice McKibben’s convening power had been directed at Keystone XL, and the world started to take discover.
Young folks swarmed to the movement, which led to some tense confrontations. In October 2011, pipeline opponents were camping out in a single day to get a talking slot at the following day’s State Division hearing in Washington. They faced off in opposition to pipeline proponents, and CEI’s Bruno received a late-night time name from a demonstration organizer, asking him to return help ease tensions.
At the subsequent day’s listening to, a Nebraska rancher’s daughter broke down in tears and implored union members who supported the pipeline: “We’re workers, too. Do not you care about our jobs “
One month later, exactly a yr before President Obama’s second election, 12,000 individuals encircled the White Home to proclaim: “Sure We can… Cease the Pipeline.” John H. Adams, the founding president of NRDC and one of many giants of the environmental motion, was there. “Our ring across the White House was 10 individuals deep at factors,” he wrote, calling it the “largest environmental demonstration I’ve ever witnessed.”
Casey-Lefkowitz was there, too.
“We could feel the bottom shifting politically,” she says. Surrounding the White House was symbolically highly effective. So was the broad variety of those talking out against the pipeline. In Bruno’s phrases: “It was a giant embrace of the president by individuals who had supported his candidacy. However this was not unconditional love. It required climate motion, beginning with Keystone XL.”
Bringing the Heat
With a broad coalition of activists preventing within the streets, NRDC and its allies additionally continued to marshal mental and economic arguments towards the pipeline.
– Retired Brigadier Common Steven Anderson, the Military’s chief logistician in Iraq in 2006-2007, testified to Congress that Keystone XL would “degrade our nationwide security” by protecting the nation addicted to oil.
– More than a hundred scientists wrote to President Obama to oppose KXL, with one group of 20 local weather scientists declaring that the pipeline was “not only not within the national curiosity, it’s also not within the planet’s finest interest.”
– Researchers from Rainforest Motion petroleum economist Network and Nationwide Wildlife Federation uncovered info from TransCanada exhibiting that Keystone XL would possibly elevate oil prices in the Midwest.
– An Oil Change Worldwide report called “Exporting Power Safety” showed that a lot of the oil from Keystone XL would finally be exported.
– NRDC identified that, in less than a yr of operation, the primary part of the Keystone pipeline networked had leaked 12 occasions. (In subsequent years, NRDC would continue to doc all of the ways wherein TransCanada had amassed a horrible safety report.)
– The Cornell Global Labor Institute released a report exhibiting that Keystone XL would create no more than 2,000 jobs for two years. And institute workers, along with a young First Nation chief from Alberta named Melina Laboucan Massimo, were instrumental in recruiting the first labor unions to oppose the pipeline.
The president appeared to be paying consideration. In November, he told a Nebraska radio station that he shared considerations concerning the pipeline’s route by way of the Sandhills and Ogallala Aquifer. He suspended the State Division evaluate, asking the division to consider another route and tackle environmental concerns.
The backlash was ferocious.
Within the closing days of Congress in 2011, Republicans presented a invoice that required a call on Keystone XL inside ninety days, attaching it to a should-pass tax invoice. Pressured into a call, President Obama rejected the mission, at the very least for the second, noting that his choice was based mostly solely by the “rushed and arbitrary deadline” congressional Republicans had imposed.
TransCanada promptly segmented the pipeline and submitted a contemporary proposal — one for a southern leg that didn’t cross the Canadian border. NRDC led a swift and thorough response, partaking consultants and submitting a whole lot of pages of technical input to the federal government, including 50,000 comments from activists. (Subsequent efforts would generate tons of of thousands of feedback opposing the pipeline.)
Facing a reelection campaign, Obama now took a cautious method. Instead of rejecting Keystone XL outright, he agreed to an expedited allowing course of for the pipeline’s southern leg. TransCanada had achieved a partial victory — but only partial. It could construct in Oklahoma and Texas, but the stretch of pipeline crossing into Canada was the key to expanding the tar sands industry, and it remained in the president’s energy.
As the president sought reelection, powerful donors urged him – in public and non-public – to reject the pipeline once and for all. As he settled in for a second term, more than 35,000 people marched on the Nationwide Mall in bone-chilling temperatures in February 2013 for the “Ahead on Climate” rally. They included busloads of faculty students, religious groups, tribal representatives, landowners, business leaders, the Hip Hop Caucus, and National Nurses United. The coalition continued to develop.
In June 2013, in a serious climate speech at Georgetown College, President Obama addressed Keystone XL, saying: “Our nationwide interest will solely be served if this mission doesn’t considerably exacerbate the issue of carbon pollution.”
This was significant.
The president had established a local weather test for the undertaking, stated Danielle Droitsch, who was now NRDC’s Canada mission director. (Casey-Lefkowitz had moved up to guide the group’s international program.) “Keystone XL was clearly a driver of tar sands expansion, and subsequently would make climate change worse,” Droitsch said. If activists may make that clear, the president’s personal take a look at would prohibit him from approving the mission.
“What was profound is that the president mentioned that affect on climate would decide whether it was within the national curiosity,” mentioned CEI’s Bruno. “And it was the doggedness of Keystone XL protesters that had brought him to that realization.”
That doggedness would must continue. Over the subsequent 12 months, the debate continued to drag out. In early 2014, the State Department issued a ultimate — and considerably ambiguous — environmental impact evaluation. Other federal businesses were then requested to weigh in. In Nebraska, courtroom challenges to the pipeline route — and a state legislation that had allowed TransCanada to make use of eminent area to grab land for the undertaking — stored the route in doubt. Representatives of 16 Indian tribes in three states also challenged TransCanada’s proper to cross their land.
Congressional Republicans, although, urged on by fossil gasoline interests, stored trying for force the venture through. In January 2015, after taking management of both houses of Congress, they sent a pipeline-approval invoice to the White House. President Obama vetoed it. Shortly thereafter, the Environmental Safety Agency weighed in on the State Department’s environmental review, concluding that Keystone petroleum economist XL would result in expanded tar sands oil production, and consequently, considerably improve carbon pollution, simply as NRDC’s analysts had argued for years.
At this time the seven-12 months battle lastly ended with President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL proposal. “America is now a worldwide leader relating to taking serious motion to fight local weather change,” the president said.