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Obama’s Denial of Keystone Permit Was a Welcome Win Against Big Oil

Rejecting the transcontinental oil pipeline, the president turned the conventional wisdom on its head, but the real victors were the idealistic protestors.

I wrote the first book on global warming way back in 1989, so I know for a fact that there have been very few days in the last two decades when the scientists have been smiling and big oil scowling. When the president denied the permit for Keystone XL on Wednesday, he didn’t just turn the usual balance of power upside down, he turned the conventional wisdom more or less on its head—as late as October, a National Journal poll of 300 D.C. “energy insiders” showed 91 percent predicting that the pipeline would be approved.

The victory is of course a tribute to people who set aside their natural cynicism about the possibility of change and instead went to jail in record numbers, wrote public comments in record numbers, surrounded the White House shoulder to shoulder five deep. They managed to bring reality to the forefront for once, and that reality—the leaky pipeline, the oil destined for export, the carbon overload from the tar sands—managed to trump, for now, the bottomless pockets of the fossil fuel industry.

What was interesting yesterday was watching the reaction of the congressional leadership, who’d forced the issue by passing legislation mandating a speedy approval process. They’d set the president an essentially impossible task, since Transcanada Pipeline hadn’t even announced the route they wanted to take through Nebraska. But apparently they thought he’d blink anyway. After all, the head of the American Petroleum Institute had issued the most naked political threat imaginable: block the pipeline, he’d told the president in a speech last week, and there will be “huge political consequences.” And of course he has more than enough money to back up the threat.

John Boehner et al may have thought that would work, because money always works with them. Boehner has taken more than a million dollars in donations from the fossil fuel industry; as the Washington Post reported on Sunday, he has hundreds of thousands of his own money invested in tar sands companies. He and his buds believe that’s normal behavior, but everyone else in the country knows that they’re simply bought off. That’s why 9 percent of Americans approve of Congress at the moment—because it’s filled with cheaters. They take money from companies and then judge their interests. (Just imagine the outrage if they were, say, NFL referees).

There’s in fact one reason to build the pipeline—to make even more money for the richest industry on earth.

Because money is their only currency, they actually hardly even bother to make coherent arguments for the pipeline. “Jobs” is the usual line—but the only independent study of the pipeline found it would kill as many as it would create. Even Transcanada said that at the high point of construction it would employ but 6,000, and those jobs would only last a year or two. Other GOP stalwarts talked about gas prices yesterday—but again, every study shows the pipeline will actually raise gas prices across the Midwest. By now everyone knows it has nothing to do with energy independence—that the tar sands oil is destined to be shipped overseas.

There’s in fact one reason to build the pipeline—to make even more money for the richest industry on earth. It’s the same reason Congress votes each year to grant coal and gas and oil more subsidies. They get small presents from the fossil fuel lobby, and they give them big ones, paid for with our money. It stinks. But the conventional wisdom is that it will never stop, that they hold all the cards.

Having watched the conventional wisdom get upturned once this year, I’m a little less convinced by that argument. Beating Keystone doesn’t stop climate change—but it does stop Big Oil’s winning streak, and that’s a hopeful sign.

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Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and co-founder of His most recent book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

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