At Netroots Nation, activists vs. the ‘inevitable’ tar sands pipeline

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The TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline was supposed to be a ‘done deal,’ ignored by the mainstream media and supported by the Obama administration and the rest of the power elite. But grassroots and netroots activists have thus far blocked a pipeline, in the US and Canada, and elevated it to an issue in the election campaign. If the climate crisis is going to be solved, it will require weakening the power of the fossil fuel industry. [UPDATED June 10 with video of panel at Netroots Nation -- see below]

We’re at the Netroots Nation 2012 gathering in Providence, Rhode Island, where speakers assessed this campaign at a panel on “Handcuffs, Conventional Wisdom and Dirty Oil.” We heard an excellent discussion from a panel including Bill McKibben from 350.org, Becky Bond from CREDO Action, Jane Kleeb from Bold Nebraska, Ben Powless from the Indigenous Environmental Network, Brad Johnson from Forecast the Facts, and Kim Huynh from Friends of the Earth.

Watch live streaming video from fstv1 at livestream.com

Two key themes from the discussion – the essential role of grassroots and netroots activists, and the battle against the fossil fuel industry, were reflected in some of the comments by Bill McKibben and Brad Johnson (slightly edited):

McKibben:

At first, even when people were getting arrested [in daily sit-ins at the White House to protest the Keystone XL permit], there was no coverage in the ‘actual’ press. It was people at, among other places, DailyKos, who were doing a stalwart job of getting the word out – until eventually, almost bizarrely – we knew we’d made our point when Mitt Romney released his first commercial of the general election camapign and said, “In my first hour in office the first thing I will do is approve the Keystone pipeline.” So OK, in a year we’ve taken this from almost nobody knowing about it to almost everybody knowing about it.

Johnson:

People who are as connected as you can be to progressive politics, to the environmental and the climate movement, we didn’t know anything about the Keystone XL, we didn’t know about the work that Ben Powless and the Indigenous Environmental Network were doing for years – their committed, on the ground, fight for their lives.

Information and knowledge is such a key part of what we do here – the role of netroots, of progressive media, of citizen journalism, of bloggers, of social media.  The ‘real’ press, the ‘real’ politicians, and the ‘real’ climate experts in DC, either ignored this fight or they dismissed it. And not just dismissed it, but argued that the Keystone XL pipeline was the right thing to do.

The pipeline is actually a bad idea -- the more you learn about the facts of the pipeline, the more you learn about TransCanada, the more you learn about the State Department.  The State Department hearing was being run by a TransCanada contractor. The State Department officials were TransCanada contractors. If you sent in emails about the pipeline they would go to the TransCanada contractor. The State Department website on the Keystone XL pipeline was a TransCanada contractor website.

All these facts were things that people at Greenpeace, at DeSmogBlog, at Think Progress, at DailyKos, at Friends of the Earth, at 350.org put out. Jane [Bold Nebraska] put out a lot of stuff. All these things that nobody in the ‘real’ journalism world cared about or did any work on or made any effort to disseminate. It was the netroots, the people here, who both learned these facts and spread them around.

This was something that was a done deal, that the Bush administration had put into place, to make this pipeline a reality – and was held over in the Obama administration – that was supposed to happen without anyone noticing. …

This is really important: bad guys winning is not inevitable.  They work really hard at making that be the story – that the only thing that’s going to happen in the future is that, wherever there’s carbon, somebody’s going to drill it out of the ground, or rip it out of the ground, and burn it, and that’s the only possible future. That’s the story they keep selling. It’s the story President Obama is now selling, unfortunately.  But there’s nothing inevitable about it. That’s the most important lesson to take from [the problems that TransCanada is facing in getting the tar sands out of Canada].  As individuals, as states, as nations, even as corporations, we are making choices.  We actually can make smarter, more rational choices that are good for us, instead of essentially evil choices. …

McKibben:

The argument I’ve heard more than any other is, ‘Oh, they’ll just send it to China [through a pipeline to the Pacific Coast].’ But look at a map of Alberta– it’s a long way from anywhere and it’s not easy to send oil any place from it. Hence the need to built a $7 billion pipeline to Texas, or an equally expensive one out to British Columbia.

People in British Columbia and First Nations people have gathered in the last few months at huge rallies in Vancouver. First Nations people up there are not going to let this get through any time soon. They are completely activated and motivated.  It’s really inspiring to watch that coalition. They’ve taught us a lot of things. …

But it’s worth remembering that all environmental victories are temporary and this one may be more temporary than most, given the power of big oil, which is not used to losing and does not like to lose.  And even if we manage to block this god-forsaken pipeline, we’re not actually going to beat climate change one pipeline or one coal mine at a time. …

There’s 3 or 4 trillion dollars worth of oil sitting under the tar sands. Given enough time, they will get it out – that’s the pressure that 3 or 4 trillion dollars puts on the system. So we maybe bought some time. The point is, we have to use that time to make it so clear what the effects of putting all that carbon in the atmosphere will be that no one in their right minds will ever go near tar sands, or shale oil, or deep sea oil, or all the other things we're headed for.

This is the richest industry on Earth, the most profitable enterprise in which human beings have ever engaged. They have more power than any industry on Earth, which they are very good at bringing to bear. So even if the President had no greater desire than to solve the climate crisis – and there’s no particular evidence that is the case – focusing constantly on the President isn‘t, in the end, how we're going to do this.  If we're going to do it, it’s because we’ve figured out ways to weaken the power of the fossil fuel industry. …

In certain ways, the most important thing for the climate movement in the last year is what we’ve learned about how to work against the fossil fuel industry – and we’re going to have to put it to use on a much larger scale in order to have victories that mean very much in terms of the carbon concentration in the atmosphere. We’ll do our damnedest for our friends in Alberta and Nebraska, to help block this stupid pipeline, but we also have some ideas about what the next level of engagement is going to have to be.

Earlier posts:

End Polluter Welfare Act would eliminate more than $110 billion in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry

Rally at US Capitol to end fossil fuel subsidies  [with video]

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

Obama’s denial of Keystone XL tar sands pipeline permit was an easy decision, for now

Jim Hansen arrest at White House tar sands pipeline protest: “We had a dream” [with video]

Keystone XL tar sands pipeline demonstrators surround White House - pipeline permit decision blocked until 2013 [with video]

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