Has the Keystone XL fight been a mistake?

Keystone pipeline protestrs

Photo credit: Sustainable Bainbridge Discussion Circle (sustainablebainbridge.org)

I was discussing my recently-defended dissertation over beers recently with an online strategist friend, so of course the anti-Keystone pipeline campaign came up. We rehashed an argument that has been making the rounds recently: has the campaign against the pipeline been a mistake?

Although 350.org and other activists has been surprisingly successful in leading opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, some have criticized the campaign and its chief spokesperson, 350.org co-founder and environmental author Bill McKibben, for focusing on the Keystone pipeline at the expense of impending EPA carbon emission regulations. Critics argue that, since the EPA regs are presumably much more important from a CO2 reduction policy perspective than stopping construction of the pipeline, the grassroots energy that has gone into the Keystone fight would have been better spent on mobilizing support for strong EPA regulations. But this critique presents a false choice.

Even as 350.org has led the charge on Keystone, well-established environmental organizations like NRDC have very capably and (so far) successfully lobbied and organized public support for ambitious EPA regulations. This division of labor has (again, so far) served both goals well. Keystone XL is also a legitimate advocacy target, as legitimate as other environmentally sensitive energy projects like oil drilling in the Arctic or or the Gulf of Mexico. The pipeline’s impact on carbon emissions is not the only issue at stake; activists and local communities have expressed concerns about the pipeline’s impact on wildlife and the potential for spills, among others.

Most relevant to this debate is Keystone’s value as an organizing vehicle. After the crushing defeats of failed climate legislation and the loss of a comparatively climate-friendly Congress in 2010, the Keystone project fight has given the climate movement a shot in the arm that a focus on EPA regulations may not have provided. Even a failed campaign could yield long-term benefits: participation in the Keystone fight could help recruit new climate movement supporters; equip preexisting ones with more experience; build a denser network of grassroots supporters, organizations, and elite allies; give the movement opportunities to develop new strategies and tactics (and refine older ones); and so on. Not to sound too Pollyannaish, but failed campaigns can lay the groundwork for successful ones in the future. This is as true for issue advocacy as it is for political campaigns.

From a movement-building perspective, the choice might very well have been to join the fight against Keystone or risk further erosion of the climate movement’s grassroots energy. A climate movement strategist might reasonably think that gaining such an organizing vehicle was worth the comparatively marginal carbon reductions that stopping Keystone would yield because a stronger climate movement could help achieve even more ambitious policies in the future. It might even be worth the risk of defeat, which could further demoralize movement supporters. Such calculations are risky, but most political calculations carry some risk.

Luis Hestres

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