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What the Keystone XL Decision Means for the Future of Environmental Activism

Until protesters made the pipeline a national issue, no one in Washington questioned that construction of the pipeline would be approved.

Last summer, no one in Washington questioned that construction of the Keystone XL pipeline—which would have done irreparable damage to environmentally sensitive areas in the U.S. and Canada—would be approved. But yesterday the State Department, with President Obama’s agreement, denied TransCanada’s permit application for the project.

Climate-change activists originally fought the pipeline because it would have carried oil extracted from tar sands in Alberta 1,700 miles south to Texas refineries. Tar-sand oil requires more energy to extract than regular oil, and thus has a larger carbon footprint. But the coalition protesting the pipeline also included activists with more local environmental concerns: The potential damage to areas like Nebraska’s Sands Hills—particularly in the event of an oil spill—became a key argument against Keystone XL, and was the major consideration cited in November, when the State Department first announced it would delay its decision on the pipeline.

After the Obama administration delayed its decision, the Republican-controlled Congress passed legislation to force the administration’s hand, allowing 60 days for the State Department to decide for or against the permit. But deciding on any alternative route for the pipeline—the stated goal of the delayed decision—would require an environmental review, which would take longer than the Republican-mandated time frame. Thus, the Obama administration announced, they would have no choice but to deny the permit altogether.

The decision does not signify agreement with anti-oil activists—neither the State Department nor the White House has stated opposition to the idea of transporting tar-sands oil from Canada to Texas. It was not a matter of fighting climate change or weaning the country off oil, but about logistics and a commitment to more basic environmental principles. If there’s a feasible way to minimize risk to environmentally sensitive areas, the Obama administration concluded, the government has a responsibility to explore that path and follow proper procedures for analyzing environmental risks posed by large infrastructure projects.

It’s not exactly the stuff of dreams for the “left-wing environmental extremists in San Francisco” Newt Gingrich has accused President Obama of siding with on the issue. But the environmental groups that fought the pipeline are celebrating the decision as a victory, and they should. By protesting, they turned Keystone XL into a national issue and made it harder for the companies backing the project to make it happen. Stopping Keystone won’t necessarily stop the development of the tar sands: Oil can travel by train or tanker, and the decision doesn't prohibit the construction of other pipelines later. But the fight marks a step toward a broader movement of people outside Washington, D.C. pushing back against carbon pollution and climate change. Those activists showed today that they can make politicians pay attention, which is no small accomplishment.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user tarsandsaction

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