In the year since a cap-and-trade climate bill failed on Capitol Hill, a funny thing happened -- gradually but unmistakably -- to the U.S.-Canada pipeline project known as Keystone XL: It became the global warming fight's new guise.
Keystone XL's ascension from little-known commodity to fodder for a marquee bout between industry groups and environmentalists is set to start its last leg tomorrow, as green advocates converge on the White House for a two-week demonstration against the $7 billion proposal. For conservationists, the pipeline push back marks a new evolution in their battle to curb carbon emissions as well as a potential moment of unity following the brutal political defeats of 2010.
"The climate bill stuff was messy in every way -- the bill was messy, the politics were messy, relations in the environmental community about it were messy," climate activist and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben, a lead organizer of the White House protest, said in an interview. "The end result was pure cowardice on the part of Congress. ... In this case, things are much less ambiguous."
To be sure, many of Washington's major green groups have aligned against Keystone XL, which would nearly double U.S. imports of Canadian oil sands crude if it wins approval, with a vehemence that surprised pipeline supporters.
TransCanada Corp. CEO Russ Girling, whose firm first sought a border-crossing permit for the project almost three years ago, recalled in a recent interview that the similar Alberta Clipper oil sands link won U.S. approval in 2009 amid softer complaints from environmentalists. Girling did not hide his frustration with critics, who he said "have stretched or manipulated facts" to argue that "if you just shut [the oil sands] down, we wouldn't have problems with greenhouse gases."
"I don't think they have a particular dislike of Canadian crude oil relative to other crude oil," Girling told Greenwire in his office overlooking downtown Calgary. "From what we've seen, they don't like crude."
In fact, the more than 2,000 protesters who have signed up to join this month's White House civil disobedience tend to view oil sands fuel as a special case. Federal climatologist-turned-climate activist James Hansen helped plant the seeds for the protest in a June column that warned of an irreversible effect on the Earth's climate if "unconventional fossil fuels" such as Canadian bitumen are extracted and burned in addition to conventional crude reserves.
"Phasing out emissions from coal is itself an enormous challenge," Hansen wrote. "However, if the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over."
Hansen is no stranger to the environmental picket lines, having testified twice in two years on behalf of British climate activists and gotten arrested last fall on President Obama's doorstep during a demonstration against mountaintop-removal coal mining (E&ENews PM, Sept. 27, 2010). He, McKibben and other planners of the Keystone XL sit-in hope to see this month bring still more arrests and attention to their cause while putting a new face on protest movements often derided as driven by naive youngsters.
Enlisted participants in the White House anti-pipeline event are "not typically who people think of as activists -- it's farmers, doctors, lawyers, church and faith leaders, not the cliche college student out there protesting in the streets," said Matt Leonard, coordinator of the demonstration and a veteran environmental protester, in an interview.
"It's a cross section of average American citizens who realize that they have an obligation to address climate change for their sons and their daughters."
To that end, Leonard said, demonstrators are being encouraged to dress professionally. The spirit of the event, he explained, leans "toward the civil rights movement, lunch counter incidents, rather than the hippie movement."
Among the groups signing up to head to Washington are representatives of indigenous First Nations communities in Canada and landowners along the pipeline's planned six-state route from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. The event is set to start tomorrow with a march led by McKibben and Gus Speth, a former administrator of the U.N. Development Programme and top Carter administration environmental adviser.
The protest has drawn early support from green-minded celebrities, including actors Mark Ruffalo and Sophia Bush and Thom Yorke, frontman of the band Radiohead. One of those famous names -- Canadian actress Margot Kidder, best known as Lois Lane from the 1980s Superman movies -- is planning to protest in person.
Industry decries 'protests against jobs'
Oil-industry backers of the project are countering the sit-in by emphasizing the economic benefits of Keystone XL, charging the activists with pushing to reject a "shovel-ready" infrastructure project during an economic downturn.
"While respecting the open process and encouraging it, we believe the efforts planned are really protests against jobs," American Petroleum Institute refining issues manager Cindy Schild told reporters yesterday.
Despite its scheduling during a monthlong congressional recess and President Obama's vacation, the White House event is coming at a pivotal moment for the debate over Keystone XL. The State Department is expected to release a final environmental review of the pipeline by month's end, teeing up a 90-day window for other federal agencies, such as U.S. EPA, to weigh in ahead of a decision on the pipeline's permit (E&ENews PM, July 22).
The president's absence also may help set a tone for the sit-in in line with the vision of its organizers. As McKibben described it, the event is geared not at protesting Obama's environmental record but at stiffening his spine to reject a permit for the pipeline.
"Most of time, President Obama can't really get all that much done on climate change" thanks to "an irresponsible Congress that has prevented him from acting," McKibben said. That criticism of Capitol calcification echoes some of the administration's internal laments during last year's bruising battles on the issue.
"[O]ne suspects that at a certain point he gave up being interested in the whole thing," the activist added. "At one level, one can hardly blame him, I suppose. But in this case [of Keystone XL], he gets to make the call, and it will be an exceptionally interesting moment."