Protesters Win Pipeline Delay

How thousands of determined protesters dragged a little-known pipeline into the national spotlight—and convinced the Obama administration to delay its approval.
Pipeline protesters, photo by Carl Heyerdahl

Protesters of the Keystone XL pipeline encircled the White House last week.

Photo by Carl Heyerdahl

The Keystone XL pipeline started out as a fairly obscure infrastructure project that most observers expected to win quick and easy approval.

But through months of determined protest, opponents of the pipeline (which would carry oil from Canada’s tar sands to refineries in the Gulf Coast) stirred up a national debate about the wisdom of building it. And today, they’re celebrating a victory: The State Department (which must approve the pipeline since it crosses an international border) announced that it will delay approval of the project by at least a year until it can study alternative routes.

The pipeline isn’t dead, but the delay is very bad news for the developer, TransCanada—whose CEO was quoted warning that any delays might kill the project—and very good news for the thousands who have worked to keep the project from being rubber-stamped.

To get the issue on the public’s radar, more than 1,200 people volunteered to be arrested  outside the White House in August; just last week, thousands of protesters encircled the building completely. Opponents also sent some 300,000 comments to the State Department and filled public hearings for months.

“A done deal has come spectacularly undone."

Many of the pipeline’s opponents object to what they see as the dangerous precedent it sets in terms of addressing—or rather, failing to address—global climate change. NASA scientist James Hansen famously said that if the tar sands are developed it would mean “game over” for the climate. The day before the State Department’s announcement, the International Energy ABdgency released a warning that, without a move away from fossil fuel-based energy infrastructure in the next five years, the opportunity to avoid dangerous climate change will be “lost for ever.”

While the State Department cited climate change as an issue of concern, the primary reason it gave for the delay was to evaluate possible alternative routes for the portion of the pipeline that runs through Nebraska, where opposition was particularly fierce. The proposed route would have crossed the Ogallala aquifer, threatening a source of drinking water and irrigation for much of the Great Plains. Nebraskans of all political backgrounds came forward to oppose the pipeline. When TransCanada sponsored an ad for the pipeline at a Cornhuskers football game, it led to boos from the crowd and the cancellation of the sponsorship. The state legislature stepped in, convening a special session and developing a bill that would give the governor oversight of pipeline routes.

Still, only a month ago a poll of industry insiders found that 91 percent of them felt sure it would be approved, including 71 percent who expected approval by the end of the year.

Of course, there’s still no guarantee what the Obama administration's final decision will be. Some worry that moving the decision until after the 2012 election is a sign that the Obama administration is “just kicking the climate can down the road,” as Glenn Hurowitz puts it—putting off until after the election a decision that would alienate the president’s base. Others point out that after acknowledging the worries of the protesters—including, specifically, the pipeline’s impact on climate change—it will be harder for the administration to spin a future approval. Either way, public outrage has suddenly become a major factor in a way that wouldn't ordinarily be the case in such a process.

Opponents know the fight isn’t over—but they also know that they’ve accomplished much more than anyone, particularly TransCanada, ever expected. “A done deal has come spectacularly undone,” wrote Bill McKibben to supporters of the climate group, which helped organize protests.

Opponents are promising to keep protesting the pipeline—and to keep working to make sure its approval process happens under public scrutiny. But they’ll also be building on the lessons of the Keystone effort, dragging more of our national decisions about energy into the spotlight. “We need to broaden our work to take on all the forms of ‘extreme energy’ now coming to the fore: mountaintop removal coal mining, deepsea oil drilling, fracking for gas and oil,” says McKibben.


  • In Nebraska, the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline is no longer about left versus right.

  • Many communities trying to keep fracking, drilling, or big box stores out finding they don’t have the legal right. Their response? Take on the very structure of law.

  • How regular people, from Denmark to Liberia, have stood up to power—and won.