Because the Keystone XL pipeline is an American issue, we haven’t heard much about it here in the UK, and certainly haven’t had the opportunity to join in the protests in the same way. So it’s easy to miss just how significant the whole affair has been, in building the US climate movement, and in its final victory.
Obama finally rejected permission to build the pipeline last week. The most obvious advantage is that it will make it that much harder to expand production in Canada’s tar sands. That’s bad news for investors in what has been described as the most environmentally destructive project on earth, and bad news for the Canadian government, who can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that their unconventional oil needs to stay in the ground. But it’s good news for everybody else, especially Cananda’s indigenous people.
It won’t stop the tar sands – the main pipeline to Texas is already open and running oil out of landlocked Alberta. Keystone XL was the bigger and more direct pipe that would have allowed a rapid expansion of operations. That now looks unlikely, though of course a low oil price had raised questions over that already – and made Obama’s decision easier, I’d have thought. Still, there’s no doubt that cancelling KXL raises a major obstacle to further expansion though. A fortnight ago Shell had to write off a $2 billion tar sands project, saying that their decision “reflects current uncertainties, including the lack of infrastructure to move Canadian crude oil to global commodity markets”. In other words, with a low oil price and no pipeline, they can’t make it work.
Secondly, the world’s most powerful man has just cancelled a major infrastructure project because it isn’t right by the climate. It sends a message that in the 21st century, it isn’t okay to put short-term national interest ahead of the climate. It says that the environmental cost of some energy sources is just too high. Sometimes, economic opportunity needs to be turned down for the climate. If the US can do it, so can others, and that’s an important message ahead of next month’s climate talks.
Third, the Keystone XL protests have built a climate movement in the US that wasn’t there before, and may never have existed without such an iconic rallying point. Because it went through such a big swathe of the country, the pipeline was a ‘local’ issue to many as well as a national one. It united farmers, indigenous people groups, and environmental activists across political divides, people who would not otherwise work together, and led to some of the biggest environmental protests the world has seen to date. That’s a powerful movement, and if that energy can be retained in the wider fight against fossil fuels, then there may be more victories to come.
Here’s 350.org’s reflections on what has been achieved: