Moving the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline fight into the election year

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In a February 1 telecon, activist Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and key player in the fight against the proposed pipeline, discussed moving the fight against KXL into the election year, as well as making climate change an issue in President Obama’s re-election campaign.

A recording of the conference call,  hosted by the Climate Reality Check Coalition, can be found here.

Environmentalists claimed temporary victory last month as Obama denied the permit for TransCanada to build KXL, but the decision rests on tenuous ground in Congress, and it will be difficult to get the President to further acknowledge the climate change aspect of the problem.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the KXL fight, it’s that Big Oil’s wealth, power, and influence make it an extremely tough opponent.  For example, countering the Tar Sands Action campaign and McKibben’s efforts with 350.org is the “Vote 4 Energy” campaign funded by the American Petroleum Institute. Its purpose is to promote environmentally risky drilling, cut back on regulations, and retain tax breaks to the industry – all policies that would increase oil industry profits in the name of the public interest.

So rather than limiting the attack to opposing the proposed KXL pipeline, McKibben stressed the importance of fighting the bigger battle against Big Oil’s influence on the policymaking process. 350.org reports that the oil industry has contributed $93 million to sitting members of Congress, and in return is rewarded with policies geared to supporting industry interests, including more than $4 billion per year in tax credits and subsidies.  In 2011, ExxonMobil alone pulled in $41 billion in profit, but paid an estimated 17.6% tax rate, lower than the average American (though as this Climate Progress article points out, not lower than Mitt Romney).

These subsidies fail the test of fairness and equity.  The oil industry has rigged the game against responsible energy policies by buying public opinion and Congressional support.  Indeed, during his 2012 State of the Union address, Obama advocated continued development of a menu of fossil fuel energy options – a position that becomes increasingly costly in terms of climate impacts.

By calling for organized opposition to oil industry subsidies, McKibben is advocating an  alignment of the climate movement with the central focus of the Occupy Wall Street movement, on corporate power and economic fairness – an alignment that CSW supports (read more on Occupy and climate here and here).  This focus is overdue in American politics and has resonated with a wider public.

And we see it in Obama’s shifting narrative, which has begun to sound something like a light version of the Occupy movement.  Much of the President’s economic policy actions thus far could hardly be characterized as populist, but he, too, has begun to frame his re-election campaign in terms of promoting economic fairness. This theme was central to his State of The Union Address.

The fight against KXL (which we may very well lose) is part of a larger issue: the power of the oil industry to control government policy.  The industry exercises relentless pressure, not only to force through the pipeline permit, but to expedite environmentally dangerous offshore drilling in the Arctic and stepped up deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Big Oil profits from the carbon pollution of greenhouse gas emissions while externalizing the costs to be borne by human and planetary health.  One way to bring the climate change problem into the election, McKibben suggested, is to call attention to the impacts of climate change in relation to the extreme weather events that have been seen all around the country and worldwide.  Heat waves, drought, and heavy rain and snow storms, for example,  are likely to be exacerbated by climate change.  These tangible impacts of climate change can readily be seen and discussed.

How to bring the oil industry to a position of greater corporate accountability? In this election year, the climate movement could work to turn the wealth and power of the oil industry into a political liability – by bringing to public attention the industry’s lack of accountability, its corrupting influence on the political process, and its disregard for the public good in using its power to hold the US back from adequately responding to climate change.  Does the ‘99%’ want to see their tax dollars subsidizing this industry and elected officials as its servants?

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