Keystone Surprise: Greens Stronger & GOP Dumber Than Predicted

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by David Roberts, reposted from Grist

In October 2011, National Journal surveyed energy experts about whether Obama was likely to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry Canadian tar-sands oil through the U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico. Ninety-one percent of the “energy and environment insiders” believed he would.

On Wednesday, Obama proved them wrong.

How could the experts have gotten it so wrong? The answer is twofold: Grassroots environmentalists were stronger, and congressional Republicans dumber, than anyone predicted.

Back in August of 2011, when author and activist Bill McKibben staged the first anti-Keystone rallies around the White House, political observers scoffed. These were, after all, the same environmentalists who had been rendered irrelevant by their cap-and-trade defeat and the stress of economic recession. No way they could stop a fossil fuel infrastructure project with big money behind it.

But McKibben kept at it. The movement he seeded grew, forging strategic partnerships with Nebraska farmers, social-justice groups, and unions. Activists staged more rallies, hounded the president everywhere he went and uncovered serious questions about the relationship between the tar-sands industry and the State Department. As the crowds grew, big-money Democratic donors started weighing in on the issue. In November, under intense pressure, Obama announced that the final determination would be delayed until after the election. It was an unexpected display of muscle from the green grass roots.

Still, most observers assumed that Obama was just buying time (and the support of his environmental base) and would approve the pipeline in the spring. That’s where the dumb Republicans came in.

The GOP thought it had Obama in a trap — approve the pipeline and anger environmentalists, deny it and anger construction unions — and that the president had seemingly slipped out of that trap by delaying the decision. Infuriated, Republicans threatened to attach a rider to December’s payroll tax bill forcing Obama to make a decision within six months.

At that point, the administration made it clear that if Congress rushed it into a decision without adequate environmental review, it would reject the pipeline. Nonetheless, the GOP attached the rider to the bill. So yesterday, true to his word, Obama rejected the pipeline.

In other words, Republicans killed their own pet project. Maybe they thought they could bully Obama into submission, in which case they disastrously miscalculated. Or maybe they cared more about an election-year talking point than the pipeline itself. Either way, rank-and-file Republicans who genuinely wanted to see the pipeline built have every reason to be angry with their congressional leadership, which has again opted for tantrums over tangible policy victories.

The pipeline has not been killed for good, of course. Obama made it clear yesterday that he still believes in oil and gas development. TransCanada, the company behind the project, will reapply for a permit next year, so the battle may repeat itself then.

But for now, the fight is about who controls the message heading into November. On this, the experts are similarly unanimous: The GOP has the administration right where it wants it, stuck with yet another maddening choice of “jobs versus environment,” a dichotomy it’s happy to bring up through November.

But the experts have been wrong before (just a few paragraphs ago, in fact). The Keystone XL victory (along with the stunning reversal of momentum behind the Stop Online Piracy Act) shows that organizing still matters. Organizing brings money and intensity, which are the coin of the realm in politics. If the Keystone coalition is capable of a victory on policy, there’s no reason continued organizing can’t win a victory on messaging.

For the coalition winning that victory will mean going directly after its enemy’s purported strength: jobs. In a press conference denouncing Obama’s decision yesterday, Speaker of the House John Boehner claimed that canceling the pipeline would destroy tens of thousands of jobs. But the only independent study done on the matter, from the Cornell Global Labor Institute, found that the pipeline would create between 500 and 1,400 jobs, almost all temporary construction jobs. The State Department, meanwhile, estimates it would create 5,000 to 6,000 jobs.

By way of contrast, just a few months ago the GOP rallied to vote down the president’s American Jobs Act, which, according to a Moody’s Analytics estimate, would have created 1.9 million jobs. That a short-term pipeline project has become the heart of the GOP jobs program is a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the conservative economic agenda.

The pipeline also wouldn’t have served the (somewhat illusory) goal of “energy independence.” Americans will have no special claim on the oil piped through it. As recent reports have shown, the vast bulk of that oil will be exported to petro-hungry areas like Europe and Latin America. TransCanada officials have admitted in congressional testimony that opening Canada’s oil to export will boost its value and thus increase its price for Americans. More likely, any change in the price of oil or gasoline will be a faint signal lost amid natural fluctuations.

There are, of course, ways to create American jobs and strengthen American energy security. Most of them are under attack by the very same Republicans lamenting the loss of Keystone XL. For instance, the GOP has vowed to block extension of the Production Tax Credit that supports wind power developers. According to a study commissioned by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), that could lead to the loss of 37,000 jobs — good, permanent jobs. The Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program for renewables has, according to DOE, created 60,000 direct jobs in the wind and solar industries. The GOP is trying to kill it too. (Both AWEA and DOE have reason to trumpet their economic benefits, of course, but their numbers are generally taken seriously by investors.)

Supporters of clean energy can win the messaging battle if they can focus the conversation on what kind of jobs Americans want, which is to say, what kind of country Americans want. Do we want ephemeral jobs building oil infrastructure that overwhelmingly benefits those who happen to be sitting on top of the oil? Or do we want high-skill jobs in manufacturing, engineering, design, and a dozen other trades, in industries that will dominate the 21st century, with profits that stay in U.S. communities? Do we want to continue cooking the planet, or do we want to lead the way toward solutions?

Winning that messaging battle won’t be about cleverness — it will be about volume and repetition. Greens can never match the money behind fossil fuels, but as the Keystone XL fight has shown, they can out-organize and outmaneuver their opponents when they put their bodies and sweat into it. As long as they ignore the “experts,” they’ll be fine.

— David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist.  This piece was originally published at Grist.

15 Responses to Keystone Surprise: Greens Stronger & GOP Dumber Than Predicted

  1. prokaryotes says:

    Republicans plot next step on Keystone oil pipeline

    (Reuters) – Republicans in Congress are considering using upcoming payroll tax cut or highway construction bills in order to force quick approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline but have not yet settled on a strategy, lawmakers said on Friday.

    Maybe the time to introduce the Carbon Tax?


  2. Dano says:

    I’ll wait and see. I suspect it will be approved next winter-spring, after BHO has his votes locked up and likely the re-election in the past.

    I hope I’m wrong.



  3. Leif says:

    I like to think that Obama has been playing the GOP into a corner while waiting for “We the People” to give him some political cover. After all, if nothing else the SOPA and KXL have shown if we don’t fight for him, he will have no chance to fight for us. Any success for taking down a ~200 year old entrenched system of powerful capitalism and corporations focused on greed and personal profit will take some doing. It is all hands on deck. After all Obama came right out long age and said, if we want change, make him do it. I am waiting on the State of the Union Address. I have told him so.

  4. Jeff H says:

    The Messaging Battle

    It’s too bad that we don’t have the President himself trying hard to win the messaging battle. Have we all payed attention to his actual announcement?

    But it’s not merely “too bad”, of course. I doubt that we can genuinely win the “messaging battle” without him — or without the verve to replace him. This does not — at all — mean that we should sit on our hands and wait for him to “message” convincingly. By all means no. But it does mean, I think, that as we try all means to boost the volume and quality of the message, he’ll need to “get with the program”, and we’ll need to cause him to do so, or else his lack of messaging, muddled messaging, insufficient leadership, and (for the most part) inaction will undermine and “set back” any messaging we do.

    As long as the President conveys messages like those in his statement yesterday, the messaging of “environmentalists” and “those folks from San Francisco” will remain largely “fringe” and relatively ineffectual — RELATIVE TO what will be needed to actually face and address climate change.

    And there is this added problem, or at least complicating one: Most people — or at least far too many — seem “locked into” supporting (voting for) Obama no matter what he doesn’t do, and no matter how dismal his messaging is. At a time when his messaging is nearly rock-bottom (again, read his announcement yesterday), most environmentalists are throwing a party for him, and I haven’t yet seen an actual CRITIQUE of his statement yesterday, let alone any serious discussion of what has to be done to get him “seriously with the program”.

    Will there be any actual assessment and critique of His Statement?

    Of course, the State of the Union Address is coming up, so perhaps there will be a thorough and honest assessment of what he says in the SOTUA about climate change, and (at that time) we can also use what he said in yesterday’s statement to “triangulate” as we try to figure out who he is, what he’s saying, what he really means, and what he might or might not do, if we elect him again.

    Isn’t that interesting: three years as President, and with people like S. Chu and J. Hansen available to him, and with people from CAP presumably willing to advise him, and we still can’t figure out how serious he is about climate change, or at least what kind of leadership he’s willing to provide in order to actually face it squarely and address it with verve.

    Remember, it was not a Republican president who made that muddy and near-meaningless statement yesterday. It was the President (then candidate) who promised us, nearly four years ago, that he would change the dialogue and change the direction of the U.S. with respect to climate change.

    Now the words ‘climate change’ are hardly even in the public/political dialogue, thanks in substantial part to you-know-who. (Indeed, the present post hardly mentions climate change: this is a sign that the other side’s framing is still largely the prevailing one.)

    Too, almost absent from our own assessments is the reality that a main reason for Obama’s original delay of his decision until after the upcoming election, to which the Republicans responded (not very smartly, depending on their real aims) by imposing the arbitrary deadline, was that the original environmental assessment process had been botched. Botched by who? By Obama’s own State Department. As far as I can tell, all (or at least the vast majority) of the assessment period has been during the current term. TransCanada’s original “Application For Presidential Permit” for Keystone XL was submitted on Sept. 19, 2008, but I suppose that nothing much was done with it until early 2009. (Can anyone tell me specifically when the State Department began the official environmental assessment and picked or OK’d the contractor to do it, which of course was a key part of the problem?)

    If you consider the President’s own statement yesterday, and the reasons he gave for not permitting the pipeline (at this point), and if you understand the timing of the whole thing, how can we see “where we are today” as anything but a result of a botched process, delays, muddled thinking, excuses, evasions, and blame-throwing on the part of the Obama Administration? Here, I’m NOT talking about the (great) role of and others. And the immediate decision is the necessary one, of course. But where does Obama REALLY stand, and what — really — is he doing to lead the messaging?

    The real and actionable question is this: What are WE going to do, now, to compel Obama to “get with the program” and to compel him to be clear in his messaging and to be clear and honest, with us, in terms of what he’ll PROMISE to do (no winks or fingers crossed) if we elect him again?



  5. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    One good speach could do so much.

  6. Leif says:

    The last three years have been a learning process for us all. Even the President, which I grant you Jeff, whose efforts have had all the appearances of a CF. On the other hand, “We the People” have learned much and now it is time for us to bring this debacle to a conclusion. If we can not back the GOP into a corner with all our combined efforts, what chance does Obama have? We must bring a Congress and House that represents Earth’s life support systems and Justice for all Humanity to prevail, and not just by 51%. Who are you offering Jeff? Looks like we dance with the one we brung. Now we have to turn him into the bell of the ball. Shake his hair out, give him confidence, ditch the glasses, and blow them away.

  7. Ernest says:

    I agree with the observation the “climate change” is hardly mentioned at all. This also includes many environmentalists with regards to Keystone XL. The justification given for denial of the pipeline is more often risk the aquifer, pollution, than climate change itself. One is more concrete. The other is more abstract. One is a more winnable argument and can engender a broader coalition. The other controversial. One seems pragmatic and common sense. The other seems like ideology or “religion” to many people as an issue. Climate change is sometimes mentioned, but also in context with other issues such as pollution and jobs.
    Here’s a sampling of the reporting (NRDC switchboard.)

  8. Jeff H says:

    Leif, I doubt that Obama needs “confidence”, or at least not in the normal sense that you or I might need it, or at least that’s not the way we should understand the problem. Indeed, I think a much better way to understand matters is that he (apparently) “needs” the very thing that most of the people in the movement are afraid to give him and aren’t willing to give him: a conditional demand, in other words a clear understanding that if (and only if) he “gets with the program” and shows real leadership, then we will support him; and if he doesn’t, we won’t. Period. What he (and the leading Dems) really need is to hear that message and believe it. Period. And for them to hear it, we need to speak it, lots of us, loudly. Our misunderstanding of the problem, and our fear and unwillingness to do that, ARE the problems.

    He was the student head of the Harvard Law Review — I forget what the post is called — and ran for President of the U.S., and won! He is not an un-ambitious person. He doesn’t need more confidence in their normal range of what we mean by that word. He needs a clear carrot — winning — and a clear stick — the belief that he’ll lose, by not getting OUR votes, if he doesn’t do what his base wants him and needs him to do. But again, it is the one thing that we’re not willing to give him.

    (We apparently “spoil” our presidents just as we too often spoil kids, in this culture? Yes, we “nag” — you’ve read the critiques of him — but all of our messaging to him, including here, either states or implies that he’ll get our votes no matter what he does or doesn’t do. So he does just about as little as he can — so as not to upset the Repubs or Independents, and so as not to engage in the “controversy” of climate change.)

    I wish I could be more positive, but that wouldn’t do any good, and it would miss the point. His terrible messaging and avoidance (of the topic) undermines at least 80 percent of the value of what the movement is trying to do — and he’s “our” President.

    And, to be honest, most of what I see, read, and hear here is apologetic for him, and is critical of people (like me) who suggest placing conditional demands on him to GET WITH IT. “No, we mustn’t do that!” When I ask, Why?, there is never any coherent answer offered. The answers always imply the assumption that if we were to make clear, coherent, conditional demands of him, he would ignore them anyhow, and then where would we be? (Best to ignore the issue, and just “be happy”.) So we put our heads in the sand, don’t ask the question, don’t consider the strategy, and say “please” when we want him to do something (“but we’ll vote for you anyhow”). We understand climate science, I guess, but we grossly misunderstand politics and especially what makes politicians tick.

    In any case, Leif, I appreciate your comments and efforts. I’m just venting.



  9. Brooks Bridges says:

    Comments here asking “What can we do?” are ignoring the major point of this post: Activism got Obama to do something that almost everyone thought was impossible.

    “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words.. Is that all you blighters can do?” (My Fair Lady)

    Notice the subject, “Activists”, and the all cap ACTIONS from this quote from the post:

    “Activists STAGED more rallies,HOUNDED the president everywhere he went and UNCOVERED serious questions about the relationship between the tar-sands industry and the State Department. “

  10. Bob Geiger says:

    This article’s emphasis on the messaging around jobs is right on. Climate Progress has stepped up on this aspect of the debate recently. Another aspect of the issue that seems overlooked for the moment: gas prices. If gas prices go through the roof this summer, you can bet the GOP will claim that the pipeline will help bring them down. My understanding is that the pipeline would actually increase gas prices in the midwest by redirecting oil to the Gulf of Mexico. We should be getting that message out now, before the other side defines the issue. (Also, for accuracy’s sake, I believe the legislation called for an administration decision within 60 days, not six months as this post indicates.)

  11. mulp says:

    The way you “make a president” do anything is to elect a Congress that passes the laws that require doing what you want.

    So, elect a Congress that imposes a carbon tax on all oil in or passing through the US that starts at say $5 a barrel and goes up $5 a year, and an equivalent for coal. That will kill investment in the XL Pipeline because that will kill investment in “unconventional” aka expensive oil and drive out coal power.

    oh, but that requires constantly working on electing more and more Democrats until Republicans become climate hawks out of self defense.

  12. Leif says:

    Time and again I have written the President, his wife, and election committees that are asking for commitment and money and told them no dice until I got a clear, unambiguous response that Obama supported the full efforts of the green awakening economy. I have been true to that statement. However when the chips are down and I am forced to vote for either him or the GOP or not at all, he wins. Until that point I continue to do my best to promote a viable alternative to the status quot so folks have another viable port to anchor.

  13. I think the “biggest surprise” from the Keystone XL battle is people even showed up at all to protest it.

    The corporatists had done *everything* right.

    * got supreme court to allow them to dump unlimited and untraceable money in federal politics

    * flooded the government with 4 anti-climate policy lobbyists for every elected congressperson and leaned hard

    * pressured corporate-ad-supported MSM to totally abandon reporting on climate change

    * pressured BOTH political parties to abandon all climate change policies and even to abandon mentioning climate change

    * hired all the right revolving door mucky-mucks to grease the skids.

    * spent millions on “jobs and energy security” messaging

    * got the state department to use the industry’s own pet consulting firm to do the “environmental assessment” (snicker snicker)

    * got the state department to amazingly remove climate change as even something to CONSIDER as an impact (though it took two tries)

    And yet over a thousand people show up to be arrested to stop the climate threat! Wow. Just wow.

    I think the real anger you are seeing from big oil and corporatists on this is that they dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s and still got pwned. And by who? A pointy head and a Vermont writer and every day citizens? Who invited these nobody’s to the party?

    Up in BC the same thing is playing out with a united first nation alliance in full force showing up to stop an equally big tar sands pipeline across BC to send the best remaining Canadian oil to China.

    Toss in the total corporatist slap down on SOPA and PIPA that the uncontrollable upstart citizens pulled off via the web blackout…and you have something the power structure hasn’t seen in decades: people demanding they have a say in the major decisions that affect their lives.

  14. Tim says:

    There is nothing abstract about the attenuated emission of infrared radiation from the earth into space. The potential pollution of aquifers by the Keystone pipeline is in fact just a “potential” (albeit likely) problem. Global warming is observed, and directly traceable to the greenhouse effect and the burning of fossil fuels that the pipeline will deliver – and bloody basic physics! Perhaps you mean to say that the worst results of climate change lie farther in the future than those of “pollution”. Again, that doesn’t mean that they are “abstract”, they’re quite “concrete”. You may be correct about how these matters “seem” to many people, but that is precisely the point. The way that deniers have succeeded in making things seem are not the way they are – and that is largely because Obama and his administration don’t talk about climate change, and don’t do the hard work of educating and arguing and persuading.