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Elizabeth Shope’s Blog

Victorious in Unity: The Movement that Stopped the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline

Elizabeth Shope

Posted November 14, 2011

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Last month after the conclusion of the final State Department hearing in Washington, DC for the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, I snapped a photo of several indigenous leaders alongside Nebraska ranchers and activists. Both groups had traveled to Washington to speak out against the Keystone XL pipeline. “Cowboys and Indians working together,” one of them said. “Who would have imagined?” We all laughed.

These types of unlikely alliances joining their voices and bodies together to fight for our communities and against Keystone XL, tar sands and dirty fuels, is in large part what last week convinced the Obama Administration to announce a new environmental review of the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that is likely to last through early 2013.

Cowboys and Indians 1 Outside KXL DC hearing Oct 2011 credit Elizabeth Shope.JPG

In the last few months, these alliances have grown broader, deeper and stronger. Bill McKibben’s heroic leadership has turned what once seemed like an unwinnable campaign into a tremendous movement that reinvigorated and reunited the environmental community and brought together people from all walks of life to take unprecedented actions in an attempt to show the Obama Administration that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is not in the national interest. And it has worked. In NRDC President Frances Beinecke’s blog on this victory, she writes:

President Obama took a stand for the people of Nebraska today, and Americans everywhere, when his administration stood up to Big Oil to say we won't put our people, waters and croplands at risk for the sake of pipeline profits and dirty fuels.

Rewind to June 2011. Since Keystone XL had been proposed in 2008, we had made significant strides in elevating the profile of tar sands and the Keystone XL pipeline. The New York Times had written its first editorial opposing Keystone XL. A wide range of people had spoken out against Keystone XL including US Representatives, Senators, Nebraska State Senators, Mayors, landowners, farmers, environmental groups, faith groups, indigenous groups and business leaders. We had had dozens of meetings on the Hill and with the Administration to educate our government officials about tar sands. We had written hard hitting detailed comments about the Keystone XL draft environmental impact statement, successfully advocated for a supplemental environmental impact statement since the first draft was lacking so much important analysis, and written more detailed comments about why the supplemental environmental review was still inadequate. And we had published the game-changing report Tar Sands Pipelines Safety Risks, which had not only brought attention to the risks of pumping corrosive acidic diluted tar sands bitumen through pipelines – a critical issue that the State Department has refused to study – but had forged major bridges between environmental groups and landowners concerned about their drinking and irrigation water.

But we were struggling; industry’s muscle and money was still allowing their lies and PR campaigns to outshine the facts with which we had armed ourselves.

Then in comes Bill McKibben. It started with an open letter written by Bill and ten other respected leaders in their fields. The letter invited people to use their bodies in an effort to overcome the power of Big Oil:

So we’re pretty sure that without serious pressure the Keystone Pipeline will get its permit from Washington…  it’s time to stop letting corporate power make the most important decisions our planet faces.  We don’t have the money to compete with those corporations, but we do have our bodies, and beginning in mid August many of us will use them. We will, each day, march on the White House, risking arrest with our trespass. We will do it in dignified fashion, demonstrating that in this case we are the conservatives, and that our foes—who would change the composition of the atmosphere are dangerous radicals. Come dressed as if for a business meeting—this is, in fact, serious business.

Tar Sands Sit-Ins September 3 Group Shot Credit Josh Lopez.JPG

Photo Credit: Josh Lopez/Tar Sands Action

Two and a half months later, 1,253 people had been arrested for participating in sit-ins in front of the White House to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, and hundreds of thousands of individuals had spoken out against the pipeline. NRDC does not endorse civil disobedience, but two of my fellow NRDC staffers and I took a vacation day and were arrested in our personal capacities. The people who risked arrest were not just young radical environmentalists. There were young people, old people, individuals from Vermont whose communities had just been ravaged by Hurricane Irene, people from the Gulf Coast whose livelihoods have been compromised due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill into the Gulf, Nebraska landowners whose ranches would be crossed by Keystone XL, mountain top removal activists from West Virginia, anti-fracking activists, and many more. For most of us, it was our first time risking arrest, and we were nervous about it. If we had elevated the tar sands issue from near radio silence to a gentle buzz, the sit-ins took that gentle buzz and put it through a large blow-horn to amplify and spread the buzz—in the media, in the Obama Administration, and in the environmental community.

Once the sit-ins had concluded, Bill McKibben’s next idea was to attempt to encircle the whole White House with people. No arrests – this would be a totally legal action on November 6, 2011. I rode the circumference on my bike in the early planning stages when we were trying to see if this was really feasible. It was over a mile. Yikes. Planning the November 6 action took the amplified buzz and pushed it over the top, making fighting Keystone XL the highest priority for the environmental community. While our groups had been united in our position against the pipeline, there had still been a divide between those who were organizing the sit-ins and those who could not endorse civil disobedience. Since there was no civil disobedience component to the November 6 action, NRDC, Sierra Club and others were able to put their full muscle behind the event. Over 10,000 people came together for a rally in Lafayette Park, and then deployed around the White House to tell President Obama NO to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. As McKibben said, we were either giving the White House a gigantic hug or putting President Obama under house arrest. We held signs with quotes from President Obama’s 2008 election campaign. “Let’s be the generation that finally frees America from the tyranny of oil,” some of the signs read.

Nov 6 Tar Sands Action Credit Clayton Conn.JPG

Photo Credit: Clayton Conn/Tar Sands Action

Then just four days later, the Obama Administration announced that it would conduct the more rigorous environmental review we have been calling for, which would push the decision about the pipeline at least into 2013. Last week’s announcement was a true victory against Big Oil, and a testament both to the work we all have done to refute the pipeline proponents’ lies about jobs, energy security and safety, and to the power of unity. 

But the fight is not over. This is not just a fight about one pipeline. I became acutely aware of this in late September when I traveled for the first time up to the tar sands in Fort McMurray, Alberta, and up to Fort Chipewyan – a First Nation community downstream from the tar sands which has faced high levels of rare cancers. The tar sands emitted an odor that felt toxic – something between gasoline and rotten eggs, and when I breathed in the air, my throat constricted a little and I coughed. The Alberta government has refused to do a study about the causal relationship between the tar sands pollutants and the health problems faced by Fort Chip. When I went up to Fort Chip, I was surprised to find that the main topic of conversation was moose meat and moose hunting. As a fly-in community, Fort Chip residents rely heavily on moose meat to make it through the winter. I talked with one person who said that when he was younger, he played travel soccer – so he visited many places; none of these places had better water than Fort Chip. But, he said, that all started to change about 20 years ago. Now, they can no longer eat the fish; they have to bring bottled water with them when they go hunting; and when the children swim in the water, they emerge with funny rashes. Right now, there is a study being done about heavy metal contamination in the moose meat; if they find out that the moose they are hunting contains an unhealthy level of heavy metals, the very livelihood of these people will be compromised.

President Obama still needs to reject the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, and ultimately, we – as a country and as a world – need to reject tar sands oil, dirty fuels, and fossil fuels more generally and instead embrace a clean energy future. We have a lot of work to do, but my spirits are high. As a newly reunited and reinvigorated community, with groups working together and respecting each other in brand new ways, we have tremendous strength. Rejecting Keystone XL should be a no-brainer; just one step in a much broader effort to reject fossil fuels and protect our climate and our communities.  

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ViableNov 14 2011 07:56 PM

Here is a summary of a peer-reviewed study that outlines the environmental issues that are created by oil sands mining:

It isn't just the watershed in Nebraska that will suffer; the Athabasca River watershed in Northern Alberta is already heavily impacted by the mining operations.

ElainNov 14 2011 08:12 PM

fortchipewyan was so beautiful the water yu could drink it the fish was good i feel sadend that money comes first and the people have to die and that land is ruined wake up. theres people have a right to feel safe on there land. yu have took the enviromnt . stop.

Dave LNov 14 2011 10:35 PM

I'll apologize first - I'm a Canadian. We're your friend and ally - we've stood with you for decades. Our oil sands project is subject to strict environmental standards. Canada promotes human rights. Yet apparently the US would rather continue to purchase oil from Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, brought in by super-tanker (you still need oil, right?) I honestly don't get it... Without the US, where should Canada look? To paraphrase Kent Brockman from The Simpsons - "I, for one, welcome our new Chinese overlords".

PJMDNov 15 2011 01:27 AM

I too was arrested. I too encircled the White House. I too celebrated when President Obama made the decision to delay. I too felt that I had done something constructive and important.

Then came Bill McKibben's latest: "Don't be fooled by Obama's Keystone Copout" essay. I suggest you all read it and consider that he may be playing chess and we may be playing checkers.

KXL should be rejected because Tar Sands Oil needs to stay in the ground. It's not about the electoral votes in Nebraska. His decision allows him to court both sides: We will now become enthused about his election campaign, while Oil will contribute in hopes of currying favor. Smart election year politics.

President Obama should reject the pipeline, period. Let him send up the flare that indicates the market signal saying "GO" to renewables, "GO" to green jobs, "GO" to carbon emissions fees, "GO" to sustainability.

So congratulations to all for achieving a time out. Now let's keep up the charge for the TD.

SteveNov 15 2011 02:21 AM

There is no fact, and certainly no logic in the argument here. You are saying "Go" to States with horrendous Human Rights records. Every time you fill up, you support them. You are saying "Go" to the naive belief that we can have a sustainable energy policy in under 24 months. You are saying "Go" to further conflict because America's Energy needs are not going away. Do the math. Doing business with people at odds with democracy or human rights eventually means War, wither you like it or not. I haven't even the words. This isn't political. It is insanity on your part all in the name of political correctness and the following of baseless information. Alberta is at the forefront of sustainable research. If you knew anything about the area, you would know 80% of it CANNOT be mined. It is recovered in a process called In-Situ SAGD. I.... oh never mind.

BrandonNov 16 2011 05:12 PM

Hey Elizabeth - it was great meeting you in DC on the 6th. As a fellow arrestee, I applaud the work you are doing beyond just Keystone XL, but on the tar sands issue overall.

I don't subscribe to the defeatism expressed in a couple of the comments here. We CAN do without this dirty oil and we WILL do without it. There are tremendous gains to be had in efficiency alone, and the new MPG standards just announced will go well beyond anything the Keystone XL pipeline would ever be capable of delivering, while ensuring long-term jobs in the process.

I look forward to working with you on this in the months and years ahead. Thanks again for the excellent work!

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