Can you say ‘victory’?

What does unlikely win on the Keystone XL Pipeline really mean?

Six months ago, the Keystone XL Pipeline was a done deal. Now it’s as good as killed. What happened?

Six months ago, the Keystone XL Pipeline was a done deal. Now it’s as good as killed. What happened?


Bill McKibben is an environmentalist, author and founder of, an international climate-change campaign.
This story is reprinted with permission from

Um, we won. You won.

Not completely. President Barack Obama didn’t outright reject the pipeline permit. My particular fantasy—that he would invite the 1,253 people arrested on his doorstep in August inside the gates for a victory picnic by the vegetable garden—didn’t materialize.

But last week, the president sent the pipeline back to the State Department for a thorough re-review, which most analysts are saying will effectively kill the project. The president explicitly noted climate change, along with the pipeline route, as one of the factors that a new review would need to assess. There’s no way, with an honest review, that a pipeline that helps speed the tapping of the world’s second-largest pool of carbon can pass environmental muster.

And he has made clear that the environmental assessment will not be carried out by cronies of the pipeline company. He has requested an expert and independent assessment. We will watch that process like hawks, making sure that it doesn’t succumb to more cronyism. Perhaps this effort will go some tiny way toward cleaning up the Washington culture of corporate dominance that came so dramatically to light here in emails and lobbyist disclosure forms.

It’s important to understand how unlikely this victory is. Six months ago, almost no one outside the pipeline route even knew about Keystone. One month ago, a secret poll of energy insiders by the National Journal found that “virtually all” expected easy approval of the pipeline by year’s end. A few weeks ago, CBC reported that TransCanada was moving huge quantities of pipe across the border and seizing land by eminent domain, certain that its permit would be granted.

So a done deal has come spectacularly undone.

The American people spoke loudly about climate change and the president responded. There have been few even partial victories about global warming in recent years, so that makes this of crucial importance. The president deserves our thanks.

But our fight, of course, has barely begun. Some in our movement will say that this decision is just politics as usual: That the president wants us off the streets—and off his front lawn—until after the election, at which point the administration can approve the pipeline, alienating its supporters without electoral consequence. The president should know that if this pipeline proposal somehow reemerges from the review process, we will use every tool at our disposal to keep it from ever being built; if there’s a lesson of the last few months, both in our work and in the Occupy encampments around the world, it’s that sometimes we have to put our bodies on the line.

We need to let the president and oil companies know that we’re ready to take action should they try to push this pipeline through in a couple of years. But in the meantime, since federal action will be in abeyance for a long stretch, we need to figure out how best to support our Canadian brothers and sisters, who are effectively battling against proposed pipelines west from the tar sands to the Pacific. And we need to broaden our work to take on all the forms of “extreme energy” now coming to the fore: mountaintop removal coal mining, deep-sea oil drilling, fracking for gas and oil. We’ll keep sending you updates from; you keep letting us know what we need to do next.

A few weeks ago, scientists announced that the planet had poured a record amount of CO2 into the atmosphere last year. That’s a sign of how desperate our battle is. But we take courage from last week’s White House announcement; it gives us some clues about how to fight going forward.

I’m going to bed tired tonight. But I’ll get up in the morning ready for the next battle, more confident because of this victory.