A Historic Climate Win, Keystone XL's Unfinished Business and Obama's Shaky Climate Legacy

Knowing few would hold him accountable during the heated presidential race with Mitt Romney, Obama used the campaign as political cover to deliver Keystone South to TransCanada.
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Future generations may look back on November 6, 2015 as the day the climate tide started to turn. For that was the day when people power trumped corporate greed in a historic climate win.

President Obama nixed the northern section of the Keystone XL Pipeline due to activist opposition, but tar sands oil is still flowing into the US. (Photo: tarsandaction)

After years of fierce grassroots resistance, pipeline fighters everywhere are celebrating a historic victory over the northern leg of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. The president's denial of a cross-border permit to build Keystone North is a monumental win for the climate justice movement and a stirring testament to the power of the people united. For his part, President Obama is to be commended for finally taking this stand, even if belatedly and with tar sands already flowing through the new leg of the Keystone XL southern pipeline that he approved. (More about that hugely significant qualification toward the end of this commentary.)

Echoing sentiments expressed by famed biologist Sandra Steingraber at a victory party celebrating New York state's historic fracking ban, everyone who blockaded, went to jail, bird-dogged the president, led a nonviolent direct action training, filed a lawsuit, erected a spirit camp, held a vigil, attended a public hearing, wrote a report, organized a press conference, marched, rallied, submitted a public comment, wrote a letter, made a phone call, signed a petition, or otherwise took a stand against Keystone XL is part of this win.

No amount of PR spin by the oil lobby can minimize the magnitude of what just happened. For Keystone XL is not just any pipeline. It is the poster child for the fossil fuel industry. Stopping Keystone North was not just any environmental fight. It was the iconic environmental battle of the decade. As a social movement, we drew our line in the sand, and TransCanada did not pass.

Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said it well when he told The New York Times:

"Once the grass-roots movement on the Keystone pipeline mobilized, it changed what it meant to the president. It went from a routine infrastructure project to the symbol of an era."

TransCanada, Big Oil, and the Canadian government threw everything they had at getting Keystone North approved, and they lost. "We the People," led by the righteous moral force of Indigenous leaders, won.

Perhaps even more importantly, for the soul of our nation, a cultural healing of deep wounds has begun, as expressed through an unlikely alliance of ranchers, farmers, and tribal nations that joined forces to fight Keystone XL. The day the "Cowboy Indian Alliance" (read about its genesis here) saddled up on horses at a teepee encampment on the National Mall was the day I knew the battle over Keystone North was over. That was the spring of 2014.

My first introduction to Keystone came in early 2011. I was in Washington, DC, having just completed a 2,500-mile trek through the heartland calling for a green energy moon shot for America (100% renewable electricity by 2020). Sitting in a friend's Capitol Hill townhouse one morning, I opened up The Washington Post and saw an article about a proposal to ram a 1,700-mile toxic tar sands pipeline through America's breadbasket. As I read the piece, which reported on grassroots opposition by the Indigenous Environmental Network and Bold Nebraska, I remember thinking: "We can't let this happen."

Then I saw the accompanying map of the proposed route and the seed of an idea was planted: pedal the pipeline route from Canada to Texas in support of all those living along the corridor fighting it. The details of that remarkable journey are another story for another time, but I would be remiss in not recognizing Ron Seifert, who would later go on to spearhead the Tar Sands Blockade, for his selfless support during that 2,150-mile trek down the line.

Shortly before that trek began, I found myself back in the nation's capital on a hot, muggy summer day for an event that would prove pivotal. 350.org founder Bill McKibben, author/activist Naomi Klein, former NASA scientist James Hansen, former White House advisor Gus Speth and seven others had issued a gutsy call for volunteers to risk arrest outside the White House to protest the pipeline. Sixty-five of us signed up for day one of the Tar Sands Action.

What we experienced during 52 hours behind bars is another tale for another time, but before the two-week protest was over, 1,253 brave souls had gone to jail, sending a proverbial shot across the bow of the Obama White House. Fortunately, one of those 1,253 was actress/activist Daryl Hannah, for the day she was hauled away in handcuffs was the day media interest in the action soared. The next day, Al Gore endorsed the protest and Nebraska's Republican governor came out against the pipeline (before he was for it). The fight was on.

Now, seven long years after the battle was first joined, Keystone North is dead.

But did vanquishing Keystone North really stop TransCanada from pumping its foul fuel through America's breadbasket?

The sad truth is, it did not.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, President Obama opened the Keystone tar sands spigot when he fast-tracked the construction of Keystone XL's southern leg during his 2012 re-election campaign in a cynical bait-and-switch that has tarred his Keystone legacy. Knowing few would hold him accountable during the heated presidential race with Mitt Romney, Obama used the campaign as political cover to deliver Keystone South to TransCanada. Then the game became keeping the focus on Keystone North, while the even bigger prize of Keystone South became fully operational.

It worked. TransCanada has since used Keystone South to transport toxic tar sands all the way through the Keystone system from Alberta to Texas. The company's CEO, Russell Girling, boasted as much to a reporter last February:

"We just moved the first batch of Canadian oil right through the whole system from Canada right through the Gulf Coast."


The map shows how linking Keystone South (solid red, approved by Obama) to Keystone 1 (solid green, completed in 2010) gave the landlocked industry what it wanted even more than Keystone North (dotted red, rejected by Obama): a direct delivery route from the tar sands in Alberta to export refineries in Texas.

(Photo: Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)

Maps don't lie. The Keystone "carbon bomb" fuse has already been lit.

Keystone South has the ability - even without Keystone North - to deliver more than half a million barrels of toxic tar sludge daily from Canada to Gulf Coast export refineries. Yes, the northern leg would have made things significantly worse, but the Keystone pipeline's assault on our land, water, and air has already begun.

The very thing that first drew so many groups and activists to the Keystone fight - the prospect of toxic, climate destroying tar sludge being pumped across America's heartland - has already happened.

In hindsight, I think most would probably agree it was a mistake to focus almost exclusively on Keystone North at the expense of Keystone South. We all make mistakes. What matters now is that we get things right going forward. It is an encouraging sign that so many Keystone post mortems have acknowledged our Keystone South defeat, for this kind of critical self-examination can only strengthen our movement for the heavy lifting to come.

One of those heavy lifts is leveraging our Keystone North victory to now call on President Obama to close Keystone South's tar sands spigot to the world. The onus for how this gets accomplished is not on us. It is on him, for Keystone South is President Obama's tar sands pipeline. What he figured how to start; he can figure out how to stop. But let's not leave this mess on the doorstep of the next president (President Sanders sure has a nice ring to it) to have to clean up.

The climate test used by the Obama administration for Keystone North - that the pipeline be rejected if it accelerates global meltdown - applies equally to Keystone South. As if flunking the president's own climate test weren't reason enough to shut down TransCanada's built-to-spill southern leg, here are more:

  • Keystone South is perpetuating scorched earth extraction of tar sands in Canada, where First Nations peoples are dying from cancer caused by industrial heavy metal contamination.

  • Keystone South's toxic sludge will be processed in refineries across the fence from playgrounds in Port Arthur and Houston, resulting in more poison raining down on these already besieged communities of color.
  • Keystone South was rammed through tribal and ancestral lands in Oklahoma without adequate tribal consultation to protect sacred sites.
  • Keystone South now lies buried in the backyards of pipeline fighters in Texas and Oklahoma, where a plague of earthquakes could release its toxic cargo at any time.
  • So as we savor our Keystone North victory, let our revelry be tempered by the sober reality that we have some unfinished Keystone XL business in Texas and Oklahoma. But even the act of shutting down Keystone South will not be enough to salvage President Obama's shaky climate legacy.

    The moment of truth for Barack Obama's climate legacy actually comes in Paris, where he and leaders from nearly 200 nations are negotiating a global climate accord at the 21st U.N. Conference of the Parties (COP21). And right now, that legacy isn't looking so good.

    In a blog posted on the eve of the U.N. conference, world-renowned climate scientist James Hansen pulls no punches:

    "The scientific community agrees on a crucial fact: we must leave most remaining fossil fuels in the ground, or our children and future generations are screwed. Yet Obama is not proposing the action required for the essential change in energy policy direction."

    Bemoaning what he calls a "miserable failure of political leadership," Hansen warns of "great deceit and hypocrisy planned for December in Paris," bluntly calling the administration's spin on carbon capture and storage "100% pure bullshit."

    COP21 is President Obama's last big chance to do something heroic to give our children and future generations a fighting chance of stabilizing the climate. But instead of pushing for what is clearly needed - an emergency mobilization on the scale of World War II - we are being asked to believe we have decades to act and that our children will be safe if we limit planetary heating to 2º C above pre-industrial levels. Here again, Hansen rips the politically driven 2º C target as "crazy" and a "prescription for disaster." In testimony for a groundbreaking lawsuit filed by 21 youth against the Obama administration, Hansen also describes U.S. climate and energy policy as "schizophrenic, if not suicidal."

    Temperatures just keep going up while our survival prospects as a species just keep going down. 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000, with the World Meteorological Organization already declaring 2015 the hottest. Pope Francis ominously warns that humanity is "on the edge of suicide." Yet the best the Obama administration can serve up for Paris is the weak tea of 26-28% carbon cuts by 2025.

    Even if the U.S. was to achieve this timid goal, it would only leave us buried deeper in the climate hole, having wasted ten precious years we could have been using to dig ourselves out. You do the math: we are already at the dangerous level of 400 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere and must drop that to below 350 ppm to preserve a safe planet. Modest cuts in emissions will not stem the overheating of the globe. The only thing that will is transitioning to zero greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as humanly possible.

    More than 1,000 climate leaders from around the world - including Mark Ruffalo, David Suzuki, Winona LaDuke, Tim DeChristopher, Josh Fox, Terry Tempest Williams, Ed Begley, Jr. and Yeb Sano - have stated as much in a COP21 Open Letter to President Obama:

    "It is with a deepening sense of dread over the fate of humanity that we call on you today to use the powers of your presidency to champion a U.S. goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025."

    "The current weak U.S. target of 26-28% carbon cuts by 2025 cannot be described as honest, courageous or responsible in the face of a crisis that threatens the continued existence of humanity. To pretend otherwise is to recklessly gamble with the fate of future generations."

    "For the sake of our children, and those to follow, it is time to stop promoting 'All-of-the-Above' and start protecting all that we love."

    If you agree that the first step to making things better is to stop making things worse, join our COP21 call for an equitable and just transition to zero emissions by signing the Open Letter to President Obama at ObamasClimateLegacy.com.

    Cross-posted with BuzzFlash

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