When TC Energy announced that it was cancelling its planned Keystone XL pipeline on June 9, management didn’t congratulate or even credit the tens of thousands of activists who’d battled against it for more than a decade. Instead, the death blow to the near 1200 mile pipeline came when Joe Biden, on the first day of his presidency, proclaimed that the United States would rejoin the Paris Climate Accords and — in an Executive Order — revoked the Keystone construction permit. But focusing a close-up on President Biden’s signature misses most of the story leading up to it, and obscures the impact of a series of campaigns that ultimately made the Executive Order happen and killed the project.
Taking a somewhat expanded view of the story provides a textbook (my book!) illustration of How Social Movements (sometimes) Matter.
Opposition to the pipeline, which would have carried tar sands crude oil from Alberta Canada to Steele City, Nebraska, and — eventually — on to Nederland, Texas, developed as soon as the idea was floated — early in the Obama presidency. There were many reasons to oppose the plan: local landowners fought against loss of their property rights and the threat of eminent domain taking all along the route; Indigenous tribes were also concerned about property rights, the violation of historic sites, and the prospects of the health risks associated with contaminated water; environmental activists were particularly focused on the transport and eventual use of particularly dirty crude oil and its effect on global climate change.
The diverse constituencies associated with each concern were ultimately able to work in common cause, using a wide range of approaches, and bring their grievances to a broader public, build support, and generally complicate the process of constructing and ultimately operating the pipeline. From the start, climate change activists like Bill McKibben, recognized that a campaign against Keystone XL could serve as a leading edge in the broader fight for government action on climate. McKibben, journalist, strategist, and activist who founded 350.org in 2008, found visible targets that would give new activists something useful to do in response to what seemed like an unfathomable global problem. The group also sponsored divestment campaigns focused initially on college campuses that educated and engaged a new generation of activists, and generating an intensified scrutiny about the business of fossil fuels.
McKibben was opportunistic, linking to Occupy Wall Street in the fall of 2011, when hundreds of Occupations broadly addressing political and economic issues, noting that combating climate change was a fundamental issue of social justice. At the time, the prospects for stopping the pipeline looked bleak: Democrats had done poorly in the midterm elections, and had lost control of the House of Representatives to a Republican Party dominated by a faction that vigorously denied climate science, and saw business, including the fossil fuel industry, as the most important constituency to protect.
Climate justice crusaders episodically staged protests all along the route proposed for Keystone, and far from the route, in Washington, DC. Sometimes, the protests involved placards and sometimes civil disobedience and arrests. Sometimes there were small groups of activists, and sometimes much larger groups. In 2014, nearly 400 young activists got arrested outside the White House. Celebrities like Daryl Hannah got arrested as well; other celebrities (e.g., Robert Redford, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Neil Young) issued statements, raised money, and played benefit concerts.
The loose collection of students, celebrities, civil disobedients, and others kept the issue in the news and made pipeline supporters answer questions and explain — again and again. Farmers and ranchers and Native tribes filed lawsuits in state and federal courts that proceeded at a glacial pace, forcing Keystone sponsors to continue to provide data not only on the pipeline and property acquisition, but also a range of environmental effects.
Even as the issue received attention, Keystone’s opponents faced delays and defeats. Notably, Donald Trump won the presidency running against action on climate change and environmental concerns in general, and short-circuited environmental reviews to issue a construction permit for the pipeline. The pipeline was one of many issues organizers seized upon to mobilize against the Trump presidency. Their efforts made climate action good politics for most Democratic politicians, so that newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could unite with Congressional veteran Ed Markey to introduce a Green New Deal. Over time, organizers moved the center of gravity in the Democratic Party, and the new president steered right into it.
The campaign against Keystone XL, spanning more than a decade, represented a sliver of many broader agendas, bringing together diverse groups deploying a wide range of tactics. That’s how successful social movements work. It’s not any particular demonstration, speech, direct action, or lawsuit that matters, but the accumulation of efforts over time. Everything takes forever — and it’s never really enough.
The campaign against Keystone XL was always about more than this one pipeline for most of the activists involved. Stopping one offense is a victory, to be sure, but only a very small part of a larger agenda on climate change — and, for that matter, on political and economic inequality as well. Claiming the victory affords activists the opportunity to remind both the climate activists and those they challenged of their power — and of the larger agenda. Days after the TC Energy decision, Bill McKibben was in The New York Times, noting all of this — and identifying an even more problematic pipeline as another target.
David S. Meyer is an author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. He is a member of the Science Advocacy Working Group convened by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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