The Keystone Effect

The Keystone Effect

Just hours after the White House indicated it would make a decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline by the end of Obama’s second term, TransCanada made a sharp left on its years-long effort to quickly secure approval. Perhaps sensing that the Obama administration was poised to kill the project (turns out, they were probably right), yesterday TransCanada sent a letter to the State Department asking that it suspend its review of Keystone and instead wait until the next administration takes office in 2017. The move has been widely interpreted as a punt, intended to stave off a decision in case a friendlier president takes office—like, say, a Republican.

Keystone opponents, from 350.org to the Sierra Club to Bold Nebraska, were quick to declare a hard-won victory in the fight to stop a project that James Hansen famously warned would mean “game over for the climate.” But, as activists like Bill McKibben have long been stressing, this decision is not just about Keystone. It’s about a dramatic change in the public perception of fossil-fuel projects and their impact on the planet.

At an event held by America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) this past May, ANGA President Marty Durbin outlined a new and growing problem facing his industry: grassroots opposition. “Call it the Keystone-ization of every pipeline project that’s out there,” he said. “These are things that pipeline developers have had to deal with for a long time. But we’ve seen a change in the debate.”

The difference, added Dominion Energy President Diane Leopold, has been the rise of “high intensity opposition” to pipeline projects. “It is becoming louder, better funded, and more sophisticated,” she said.

At the time of the event, ANGA and its supporters were under a lot of pressure. Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), a $5 billion project crossing three states and 550 miles, had inspired a uniquely diverse opposition of climate activists, conservative landowners, and prominent Republican officials. As Politico reports, the anti-ACP campaign includes heavyweights like former Bush 41 staffer Tom Harvey, former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, and financial services lobbyist Phil Anderson, along with climate groups like 350.org and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Such a diverse alliance has a direct parallel in anti-Keystone activism, particularly in how Bold Nebraska has built a broad-based campaign of conservative landowners opposed to eminent domain and climate activists opposed to dirty tar sands. And that opposition has only grown. With the ACP far from finalized, local opposition has pushed Dominion to sue dozens of landowners who wanted no part in the project, while also adjusting its route a number of times due to environmental concerns.  

Proposed projects in the Northeast and upper Midwest have met similarly stiff opposition from climate groups and landowners. In Minnesota, Enbridge’s $2.6 billion Sandpiper Pipeline, slated to snake across the state’s northern region, has run into hard resistance from landowners, environmental activists, and tribal groups, particularly the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Opponents have cited a lack of formal hearings in the pipeline’s development as well as Enbridge’s decidedly poor record of oil spills in the region. The pipeline remains about a year behind schedule.

As Elana Schor reports for Politico, “Keystone has changed the politics of pipelines nationwide, offering a template that activists from New England to Minnesota and Wisconsin are using to grind projects to a halt.”

And of course companies like Dominion and Enbridge are far from the only targets. In fact, the same week Durbin warned about “Keystone-ization” the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the government body in charge of issuing permits for new pipeline projects, was forced to reschedule its annual meeting in Washington after warnings from law enforcement about impending protests.

To be sure, the battle over Keystone isn’t over. As activists acknowledge, even if Obama rejects the pipeline, TransCanada can resubmit its application under a new administration. But it does seem like the ground underneath projects like this has begun to shift.