In the latest act of what has become a long political saga, Senate Republicans are trying to bypass the permitting process altogether and pass a law mandating the construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from the Canadian tar sands to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.
But you’ve likely heard about this already, thanks to a major mobilization of more than 35 organizations working together to oppose the proposed law. A coalition of environmental, tribal, and other groups launched an effort to get 500,000 people to contact their senators within 24 hours. Seven hours in, with the help of bloggers, celebrities, and vibrant networks on social media, the petition had already passed the half a million mark. [Update: More than 700,000 people ended up voicing their opposition within the 24-hour window, Bill McKibben told Stephen Colbert last night.]
That volume of response illustrates the passion that Keystone XL now excites among opponents and supporters alike. But it wasn’t always this way. A year ago, few people had even heard of the pipeline (there weren’t enough searches for “Keystone XL” in February 2011 to register on Google Trends) and those who did know about the project considered approval a foregone conclusion.
What a difference a year makes. Climate activists, residents along the proposed pipeline route (particularly in Nebraska, where concern about damage to the Ogallala Aquifer and the Sandhills is strong), indigenous tribes, and other opponents refused to let the pipeline be silently approved. “We’re pretty sure that without serious pressure the Keystone Pipeline will get its permit from Washington,” Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, and others warned in an open letter last June. And so began months of sustained activism, from a two-week sit-in that prompted more than 1,200 arrests in August to a November rally that encircled the White House.
What had once been an under-the-radar proposal soon rocketed to the status of major national issue, debated by presidential candidates and used as leverage in congressional negotiations. Congressional Republicans passed an ultimatum requiring the State Department to rule on the the permit for the pipeline within 60 days—a time frame that State deemed impossible, leading to rejection of the permit. And now, in a particularly brazen move, those same legislators are trying to mandate the construction of the pipeline—regardless of what regulatory agencies reviewing the project have to say—by attaching an amendment to a major transportation bill.
But they’re not finding it easy to do so quietly—thanks to what has, in the last year, grown into a large, passionate, and well-coordinated grassroots effort to stop the pipeline. “When we’ve been sending out Keystone XL emails, we’ve been seeing higher response and open rates than about anything we’ve been doing on any issue over the last couple years,” Sierra Club president Michael Brune told reporters on a conference call this morning. CREDO Mobile’s Michael Kieschnick agreed: “The Keystone XL fight has galvanized our 2.5 million members more than any other issue. That’s because they know the stakes.” Activists, citing the horrendous climate impact of developing the tar sands, call the pipeline the fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.
It's too soon to say what will ultimately happen with the pipeline. Right-wing politicians, many of them recipients of significant campaign contributions from Big Oil and other pipeline supporters, are showing there's little they won't try to get it built. But standing in their way is a grassroots movement with the energy—and the collaborative power—to turn a little-known infrastructure project into one of the central political debates in our country.