Climate activists won the Keystone fight

From early on in the fight over Keystone XL, environmental activists have argued that mining Canadian tar sands (and moving that oil to market through a massive transcontinental pipeline) would be “game over” for the climate. As a result, part of the discussion about the pipeline’s impact has been about whether and how much approving this one single project would add – or not – to the entirety of planet-heating emissions being blown into the atmosphere.

But despite the time and lobbying money and words that have been spent on it, Keystone XL isn’t all that special, necessarily. It’s not just this one construction project that could doom us to a much hotter and more uncomfortable future: we’ve already discovered more oil than we can possibly use and still keep the climate in any sort of humanly tolerable shape. To prevent global temperatures from getting even worse, we’re going to have to say no – not just to Keystone XL, but over and over again to projects that assume it’s OK, for now, to keep burning oil or coal or even natural gas.

The Keystone XL pipeline wasn’t even supposed to be controversial: it would have been approved quietly and routinely if climate leaders hadn’t chosen to make it their Maginot line. But since 2011, the pipeline has been one of the environmental movement’s primary battlegrounds – and, since liberal protesters managed to make Keystone such an important political fight, House Republicans voted to approve the pipeline 10 times (Friday’s scheduled vote will be the 11th). More to the political point, Republicans have put KXL approval atop their list of goals as newly empowered majority legislators. Most infrastructure plans would be lucky to get half this much attention.

The White House now says that, if Congress passes the bill as is, the president will veto it. That’s one way for the environmental movement to win this fight. And it’s a good one – if impermanent, as it leaves open the possibility that Republicans will continue to try to sneak this measure into bills that will be harder to veto.

But there’s another way for liberals to win: we could let Republicans say yes to KXL if they also vote for energy and climate policies that have an actual chance of keeping climate change at bay.

When the environmental movement started to oppose this particular pipeline, it set a challenge for the US government: start saying no to these oil infrastructure projects right now, instead of later when it’ll be too late to make a difference. But there’s also a second, more implicit challenge: for the government to start making climate policy that actually moves emission levels in the right direction.

What would it look like for the government to rise to that challenge? Saying no to KXL is one simple option. And, it is possible for environmental activists to hold out against energy development pressure long enough to win: in New York state, anti-fracking activists just managed to outlast the natural gas boom and see Governor Cuomo ban fracking statewide when the economic arguments were not longer in fracking’s favor. With oil prices as low as they are at the moment, the economics of the tar sands probably make less sense now than at any time since TransCanada filed a permit application for KXL in 2008. So, conceivably, opponents to KXL could keep saying no as long as Republicans insist on pushing for the pipeline’s approval – right up until the economic logic of oil disappears entirely, or we’ve all abandoned the Gulf Coast to rising tides and the refineries built there to support KXL have water lapping at their doorsteps.

An alternative, though, would be to force Republicans to support alternative energy policy initiatives in exchange for pipeline approval. If they want to support climate-destroying industries so badly, the price should be supporting the industries and policies that the rest of us are going to need if we’re going to keep average global temperatures from rising more than 2°C (and thereby keep the oceans from rising).

The amendments to the KXL bill on which Senate Dems are working are a good start, particularly the amendment that would require “that for every job created by the pipeline, an equal or greater amount of jobs is created through clean energy investments.” But there’s still a lot more that could be done, like renewing the wind tax credit, which was working, or stepping up research funding for energy storage technology. And there are even bigger things that are needed, like pushing for new national grid – with technology that makes it use energy more efficiently and more flexibly – and setting a nationwide renewable portfolio standard that would require that an increasing amount of the country’s energy come from alternative sources.

If Republicans would agree to some of this – which is not entirely impossible as part of a later, less publicity-oriented deal around the sort of large bill to which KXL will inevitably be attached – then it could be enough for the climate movement see Congressional approval of KXL as, actually, a victory. But it’s unlikely that the new Congress will let through any new environmentally-friendly energy policies. And as long as Republicans are saying no to the reality that America needs to be rethinking its entire energy system, they shouldn’t be allowed to enable the 19th-century dream of scooping fossil fuel out of the ground, piping it across the US, and sending it out into the world.

Sarah Laskow has written about energy and the environment for Grist, the American Prospect, Salon, Reuters, and other publications.

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