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Building On The Keystone Victory

Sun glints off columns of smoke rising from the chimneys of a coal power plant in Hohehameln, Germany. (Photo: EPA)

President Obama’s decision to reject the permit for the Keystone oil pipeline is a major victory for the environmental movement, but as activist leaders fully recognize, killing one project is not enough to save the climate. Now is the time to use the momentum from the Keystone decision, and mobilize for a broad cap on carbon emissions and a massive investment in clean energy jobs.

Environmental leaders deserve credit for maintaining pressure despite long odds. A State Department analysis in January 2014 concluded the Canadian tar sands would be tapped whether or not the pipeline was built, leading many to believe approval was imminent. But activists challenged the report’s findings and the battle continued.

Public opinion never turned against the pipeline, and a bipartisan majority passed legislation earlier this year mandating the pipeline be built. But environmental voices still rang loud and Obama vetoed the bill.

Most notable is the timing. Caught between enviros, labor and swing state electoral pressures, Obama avoided a final decision before the 2012 and 2014 elections, frustrating all sides and sparking speculation what factors would drive the outcome.

Instead, he waited until a few days before the beginning of international climate talks that are expected to end with a landmark agreement.

In Obama’s remarks Friday he nodded to that old State Department review, noting that “this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others.”

Nevertheless, he concluded:


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America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change. And frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership … As long as I’m President of the United States, America is going to hold ourselves to the same high standards to which we hold the rest of the world. And three weeks from now, I look forward to joining my fellow world leaders in Paris, where we’ve got to come together around an ambitious framework to protect the one planet that we’ve got while we still can.

Because environmental activists made Keystone a symbol of the climate crisis, Obama was able to use its rejection as a way to gain leverage for the talks. Having previously unveiled a set of regulations to limit carbon emissions from America’s power plants, Obama can now go to Paris with harder proof that America is leading, and press for reciprocal commitments from other nations.

But while a deal in Paris would be a landmark moment in the climate fight, the talks are not expected to produced an agreement strong enough to avoid a climate crisis on its own. An agreement would move us forward, but would need strengthening over time.

In turn, America will have to keep leading if the climate is to be protected.

The next steps are clear. Congress will eventually need to install a carbon cap beyond the utilities industry to cover the entire economy. Public investment in clean energy, which received a temporary boost in Obama’s first-term through the Recovery Act, needs to be revived and sustained. Not only would we slash carbon pollution, we would also create good-paying jobs and remain globally competitive.

If such goals seem daunting, remember that defeating Keystone seemed daunting at first, too. Pocket the Keystone win, and move to the next big fight.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is a senior writer at Campaign for America's Future. Follow him on Twitter: @billscher

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