Grassroots Strategy Is Key to Winning Keystone XL Fight

As Keystone XL gets pulled into the center of the political battlefield, it's worth remembering how the pipeline became a national issue.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

The Martin Luther King Jr. memorial dedication was canceled last August 22 because of Hurricane Irene, a storm that grazed D.C. on its way to causing devastation in parts of northern New England. While the dedication events down by the Lincoln Memorial were put on hold, another sort of celebration of Dr. King's legacy was taking place at the other end of the mall. That Monday morning, over 100 people walked across Pennsylvania Avenue and started the second week of sit-ins at the White House to push President Obama to deny the permit for Keystone XL, a 1,700 mile pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. By the end of August, exactly 1,253 people would be arrested during the protest.

At the time, Keystone XL was just gaining prominence as a national issue. Now, five months later, the pipeline has become the highest profile energy and environmental fight in the nation. Big Oil front groups like the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are spending millions of dollars on TV ads promoting the project. Republicans in Congress are using legislative tricks to pressure President Obama on the issue. And the mainstream media is increasingly mentioning the pipeline as a key election issue in 2012.

As Keystone XL gets pulled into the center of the political battlefield, it's worth remembering how the pipeline became a national issue and the tactics and strategies that delivered the first significant victory in a fight to stop what writer Bill McKibben has called "a fuse to the largest carbon bomb in North America." The campaign against Keystone XL was not, after all, a traditional political lobbying effort or online petition drive, but something much more in the spirit of Dr. King's tactics of "creative nonviolence."

The fight against Keystone XL has its roots in the resistance to the Canadian tar sands led in large part by indigenous communities in Alberta and across western Canada. As news about the dangers of the pipeline spread along its proposed route, ranchers and farmers in states like Nebraska and Texas joined in the fight. National environmental groups and some progressive unions stepped in with additional resources to help the effort. The struggle against the pipeline remained a mostly regional effort until this summer, however, when a new coalition effort called Tar Sands Action sprung onto the scene to coordinate the August sit-ins against the project.

From the very beginning, Tar Sands Action was a distinctly grassroots effort. The website was hacked together on a Word Press platform with minimal design. The emails from the campaign were distinctly honest and straight to the point: we want you to come get arrested, because this is a time when online petitions just won't cut it. And the organizing was fast and furious: it was only a few weeks after the campaign's launch that people started getting pulled away from the White House in handcuffs.

The effort was also deeply grounded in the need for collaboration amongst environmental groups. While Tar Sands Action formed a progressive, action oriented edge for the campaign, groups like NRDC perfected policy arguments and lobbied on the Hill, online campaigns like CREDO sent tens of thousands of emails and phone calls to the White House, BOLD Nebraska led a strategy to block the pipeline on the ground in their state, Friends of the Earth focused on a conflict of interest scandal over the pipeline at the State Department, the Indigenous Environmental Network united native communities across North America, the Transit Workers Union and other labor groups came out against the project, the Energy Action Coalition organized young people, and many, many others stepped in with their unique contributions. We likened the approach to a "swarm," a team effort that was light on formal processes and meetings and dedicated above all to speed, efficiency, and an ambitious plan of attack.

By the end of August, the sit-ins had successfully launched the Keystone XL campaign into its second phase: nationwide protest. For the next two months, President Obama was met by protesters at nearly every public campaign stop. In Colorado, he was interrupted by a person in the crowd who demanded the president stop the pipeline. "I hear your concerns," he responded. "We're looking very closely at the issue." The next stop the president made, yet another group was there to make sure he was staying true to his word.

The coalition knew that it was going to take an even larger action to push the White House to make the right decision. So, on November 6, Tar Sands Action coordinated another massive protest at the White House, this time encircling the property with nearly 15,000 people a giant, blow-up pipeline that marched around the perimeter. The protest set off a chain reaction of comments from the State Department and White House, culminating in the announcement on November 10 that the administration would be delaying the permit for a year to consider a new route in Nebraska and take into better account the health, safety and climate concerns associated with the project.

The announcement was as major victory and one of the largest wins for the climate movement in recent history. It was also the validation of the coalition's new approach to campaigning. Keystone XL was not won because of massive spending on TV ads, highly polished talking points developed by consultants, or inside the beltway compromises and back-room deals. Instead, the campaign was successful because of its focus on grassroots mobilization, including the use of nonviolent civil disobedience, genuine and straight-forward communication with the public, a distinctly coalition approach, and a sharp political strategy that consistently turned up the pressure on President Obama.

The coalition's victory, of course, was a temporary one. This December, Republicans in Congress managed to pass a rider on the payroll tax-cut extension that forces President Obama to make a final decision on the pipeline by the end of February or find a way to further delay the permitting process. If the president does delay the project again, Republicans are promising to continue to bring bills to pressure the White House. Either way, the pipeline will surely be a Republican and Big Oil talking point for the rest of the election.

With the political stakes increasing, it would be tempting to try and "win the win" on Keystone XL by falling back on traditional campaign strategies, the massive ad buys, slick talking points, and consultant driven campaigns that both sides use to battle out the latest hot button issues. This would be a mistake. Needless to say, some hard-hitting ads in swing states that tie pro-pipeline members of Congress to the dirty money they receive from Big Oil would be helpful, but in order to defeat Keystone XL once-and-for-all and use the win to build momentum for even more important victories in the future, we pipeline protesters need to remain bold, grassroots risk-takers. This January 23, we'll be taking the first step in this direction with another big, creative demonstration on Capitol Hill, with 500 referees "blowing the whistle" on oil money in Congress (you can sign up here).

What better inspiration could we ask for than Martin Luther King, Jr., a leader who fundamentally understood the importance of an inside and outside game. Someone who was just as comfortable lobbying for Civil Rights legislation in the White House as he was leading a sit-in or bus-boycott. As we enter the next phase of the Keystone XL pipeline fight, we can look to King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail for guidance. In the letter to his more mainstream detractors, King wrote:

You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.

There's surely going to be some tension ahead for those of us working on Keystone XL. As a movement, we'll need to continue to find ways to work together as a swarm, each group and individual finding his or her unique way to make a contribution. And we'll need to be prepared for some brutal attacks from the other side: the American Petroleum Institute has already promised "major electoral consequences" if President Obama further delays or denies the pipeline. But this sort of tension is exactly what movements are about. So, as we enter the next phase of the fight to stop Keystone XL and finally confront the climate crisis, we can only straighten our backs, look to some elders like King for guidance, and say, in the words of a certain young senator from Illinois, "Yes We Can."

Popular in the Community