Keystone XL foes dismiss 'boring' criticism from within their ranks

The founders of an environmental think tank who 10 years ago declared the "death" of the green movement this week blasted activists focused on the Keystone XL pipeline for an "inappropriate" use of civil-rights parallels to describe their fight.

In an essay first published by The New Republic, Breakthrough Institute co-founders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus used a common conservative critique -- the seeming contrast between climate activists' message and their participation in an emissions-dependent economy -- to slam the civil disobedience strategy used against KXL in recent years, most prominently by 350.org.

"Imagine that after the 'March on Washington' in 1963, the 300,000 or so participants all got on segregated buses for their return home," Shellenberger and Nordhaus wrote. "The equivalent is precisely what happens every time Keystone opponents climb into gas-powered vehicles after their D.C. protests."

The Breakthrough duo, whose 2004 "The Death of Environmentalism" sparked self-inquiry among greens by blasting their leadership as complacent and misguided, urges green groups that have poured resources into defeating the Canada-to-U.S. oil sands crude link to turn their focus to shrinking consumption and electrifying the nation's vehicle fleet. They charge 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben with tacitly acknowledging in December that the massive campaign to derail "this one pipeline" has kept environmentalists "distracted" from other meaningful issues.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus are not the first occupants of the environmental movement's big tent to question the wisdom of its high-profile push to kill KXL. Liberal columnist Jonathan Chait of New York magazine also has written critically of the emissions impact of the pipeline fight, relative to the push for strong U.S. EPA carbon limits for power plants, and MSNBC host Ed Schultz drew new attention this week for pro-KXL remarks.


Asked to respond to the Breakthrough barb, 350.org Communications Director Jamie Henn called it "as boring as it is expected."

"It's the chorus of cynics, not the environmental movement, that is myopically focused on Keystone XL," Henn continued via email. The activist energy stoked by the pipeline battle has "allowed us to pour more energy into other areas of work," including a campaign aimed at persuading universities, pension funds and other major investors to relinquish fossil fuel industry holdings.

Henn's group is also focused on "promoting distributed solar, strengthening EPA regulations, building global youth networks, and more," he added. "If Shellenberger and Nordhaus want to launch a campaign to reduce oil consumption, we'd be happy to partner with them. We need more people on the field, not just sniping from the sidelines."

In the hothouse of Capitol Hill, however, any apparent cracks in the firmament of environmentalist support for the unifying power of the anti-KXL campaign is bound to attract attention from a GOP aligned with the oil industry in keeping the pipeline a political wedge issue for President Obama's party.

Some pipeline supporters noted with amusement that billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer included Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana in a new target list for advertising against KXL, despite her integral value to ensuring the party's control over the upper chamber next year (E&E Daily, Feb. 6). Landrieu is expected to become chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee next week.