Obama rejects the Keystone Pipeline

In a major win for climate activists, President Obama announced this morning that the State Department has advised him to reject the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

As the President said, in order to try and reverse (or abate, really) the effects of climate change, “we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them.”

While that would have been a good enough reason to block the measure — and was the chief concern for those who opposed its construction — Keystone, if built, wouldn’t have even done what its proponents claimed it would do. They said it was a job creator; it would have created exactly 35 permanent jobs. They said it would lower gas prices; this, too, was false, as the oil would be merely passing through the American heartland on its way to other countries. All it would do was make a ton of money for TransCanada, the company that has vowed to press on with its efforts to build the pipeline despite President Obama’s lack of support. As Rebecca Leber wrote back in August:

This decision will be Obama’s final word on the Keystone XL pipeline. But for TransCanada, it won’t be the end of the story. Even if its permit is rejected, TransCanada has a few paths forward for keeping Keystone alive. The company may eye a NAFTA lawsuit arguing trade discrimination, or it may submit a new application under the next president—if it’s a Republican, the company would face a much easier time.

As Leber wrote today, Obama’s reversal on Keystone also helps secure his legacy as the first president to take multiple, big steps against the unimpeded advance of the fossil fuel industry — all while acknowledging that it isn’t enough:

Marchers take part in the Forward on Climate rally on February 17, 2013 in Washington DC, the largest climate rally in U.S. history. Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com

Marchers take part in the Forward on Climate rally on February 17, 2013 in Washington DC, the largest climate rally in U.S. history. Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com

Obama’s decision to deny the pipeline its permit is his most significant, if symbolic, move to limit the growth of the world’s fossil fuel supply. His other climate initiatives have targeted how we consume fossil fuels, but he’s rarely intervened in the industry’s plans to extract and burn coal, oil, and gas in the first place. The Keystone refusal is the kind of declarative statement environmentalists have long wanted from a world leader, with Obama delivering a message that it’s finally time to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

What’s more, the same pressure climate activists put on Obama to oppose Keystone has already proven effective for the frontrunner to succeed Obama, Hillary Clinton. As with Obama, sustained and pointed criticism of the pipeline — at times via direct action and protest — led Clinton to move from being for it to unsure about it to, finally, against it. While the progressive movement may question her sincerity on the issue, and will give Clinton hell if she reverses her position, the point still stands that oil extraction for oil extraction’s sake has become as bad of a politics as it is a policy — at least within the Democratic Party.

The story of how America went from yes to no on Keystone should serve as a model for activists going forward.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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