The180

Keystone XL: Why one pipeline answered for them all

Keystone XL was to be just one of many pipelines, among other modes of transportation, shipping crude oil across North America. But environmental activists in the United States set their sights on Keystone XL and convinced President Barack Obama to reject the proposal in the name of climate change. David Roberts explains why.
Climate advocates and representatives from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota protest against the Keystone XL pipeline in front of U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu's home in Louisiana. (Reuters)
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Keystone XL was to be just one of many pipelines, among other modes of transportation, shipping Alberta oil across North America. But environmental activists in the United States set their sights on Keystone XL and convinced President Barack Obama to reject the proposal in the name of climate change. David Roberts explains why. 

The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length.

How did Americans react to President Obama's decision?

Overall, the reaction was somewhat muted because this debate has been going on for so long now. Honestly, everybody on all sides was pretty relieved that it was all over. I do think though that there was some residual surprise among the U.S. political class that the green movement had actually won something — pretty decisively won something. They had been predicting from early on that this was a silly campaign, and that all sensible adults knew that the pipeline was going to be approved eventually, and they were just wasting their time. It's been a bit of a headspinner for the political class here in the U.S.

Calgary's mayor, Naheed Nenshi, said "I am very disappointed that one pipe, nearly a metre wide, is being asked to bear all the sins of the carbon economy." Would you agree that Keystone XL was rejected as a kind of punishment for the whole industry? 

Yes, I think that's not far off. Activists quite deliberately made Keystone XL into a symbol of the larger industry and the larger fossil fuel economy, and did end up freighting it with so much symbolism that Obama was forced to reject it — if only to send a signal of seriousness to the parties in the Paris Climate talks this December

Why Keystone?

That question has been asked many, many times. One of the premises behind it that I would question is that activists can pick their targets at will and decide, "This is the very best target based on XYZ criteria." The reality is, if you ask Bill McKibben or the other leaders of this movement, "Why did this become the huge centre of things?" they'll just say, "I don't know. It just took off." In some sense, the degree to which activists chose this is somewhat limited. It kind of chose itself. 

I think what climate activists here wanted to do was just say, "We've got to stop automatically saying yes to fossil fuel projects. We've got to at least complicate that. We've got to at least start debating this automatic approval that they expect." Why this one? Why not this one? 

The fact that I could bring pipeline proponents into this studio who would argue that in turning down Keystone, Obama is actually causing more environmental problems for his country — as two recent oil derailments prove — that doesn't change the symbolic level of rejecting Keystone?

Yes. I do think that there is an argument to be made that even in the proximate case, this is an environmental win. The main effects of this campaign are not going to be right here, right now on U.S. tar sands projects. They're going to be on U.S. culture. 

What activists have done is put on the table that leaving some of the fossil fuels in the ground and not automatically saying yes to fossil fuel projects is now at least a political possibility. Even when the Keystone campaign started, everybody just assumed that these things would be approved.

Eventually, over time, activists are going to succeed in changing those baseline assumptions. One hopes we'll get to a point where there's at least some sort of climate consideration automatically applied to all these projects without activism having to put 2,000 people in the streets every single time. 

Click the blue button above to listen to the full interview.

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