Interviewed on Democracy Now!, Bill McKibben hailed as “brave” yesterday’s decision by President Obama to reject the Keystone pipeline proposal. It was unusual praise from an inspirational leader of the environmental movement who was arrested outside Obama’s White House less than two months ago, coming at a time of progressive disillusionment with the president on many fronts.
McKibben’s comment may be a sign that the Big Chill should end between progressives and the president if only to avert the election of a Republican president and Senate in November.
The Keystone controversy may be a model for meaningful interaction between progressives and the president this year. By contrast, many progressives ignored, scoffed or even went into denial when Obama ended the Iraq War last month. Obama is sure to campaign on a platform of stopping Keystone, ending the Iraq War, taxing Big Oil, and expand green energy industries in the American future. He is doing so in large part to win the votes of young people, students, and the peace and environmental movements.
Briefly, the anti-Keystone effort began as a transnational environmental campaign among Canadians and US activists alarmed about the catastrophic global warming impacts that might occur as a result of tar sands drilling and pipeline construction. Big Oil, the chambers of commerce, the Republican Party and many oil-state Democrats formed an early juggernaut, using the argument that Keystone would free America of dependence on oil wars in the Middle East.
Peace groups generally ignored the opportunity to critique the Keystone proposal with an alternative vision of green energy and peacetime economic development. Organized labor generally supported the Keystone jobs argument, though it was wildly inflated by TransCanada. The major environmental organizations got behind the effort as a single-issue campaign, never appealing to the anti-war movement as a potential ally.
But the juggernaut was slowed as local organizing, especially in Nebraska and other Keystone state, sparked powerful criticism of the project, putting wind in the sales of environmental groups. But Keystone sharply divided the Obama coalition between labor and environmentalists. The president stayed out. Common ground seemed impossible to find – at first.
Obama knew the environmental community was disappointed in his first two year, even though it was the Senate and the Tea Party Republicans who erected barriers against progress, which were too tall to climb.
The atmosphere surrounding the 2012 election, however, provided a fresh opportunity for Obama to redeem himself with environmentalists, by considering executive action on Keystone without having to depend on his opponents on Capitol Hill. His allies at the Center for American Progress, especially former White House chief of staff John Podesta, were urging him to adopt an aggressive strategy of using his executive powers wherever Congress was obstructing.
Environmentalists, who were defeated and disillusioned at the Copenhagen summit rejection of a global warming treaty, recovered and began to rally around Keystone as a last stand where they might prevent massive emissions of greenhouse gases. It was a long shot. But the movement took off, reaching a peak in major November demonstrations and arrests at the White House. Obama’s new strategy of executive action also exposed him to possible blame unless his State Department rejected the proposal as “not in the national interest.” Since one of the top Keystone lobbyists was a former top staffer in Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. It appeared that the fix was in, for all to see.
Yet on November 10, Obama decided to defer the Keystone decision, which threatened to derail the project by driving industry costs up and triggering more studies.
But it was not over. The Tea Party Republicans attached an amendment to Obama’s top legislatiive priority, the payroll tax cut, requiring a decision on Keystone in two months. The counter-movement was overplaying its hand. Obama and Clinton knew it was impossible to reach a decision in two months. They couldn’t roll over. So they toughed it out, leading to yesterday’s decision.
As always happens, there remains the possibility that Keystone will be revived (or revised) at a future time. It is guaranteed to be a central dispute in the presidential election. As of now, the Obama decision may not win many votes in swing states like Ohio. If Obama loses, a Keystone comeback is a sure thing. Thus the fate of Obama, Keystone and the environmental movement are bound in one. The question now is what the environmental movement will do.