That was the moment when McKibben — who had already mobilized a global grass-roots climate movement from his home in Vermont — decided to join the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry heavy crude oil from Canada’s Alberta province to the Gulf Coast. It was a decision that eventually landed McKibben in jail, along with Hansen and more than a thousand other pipeline foes who have been arrested in front of the White House.
The Keystone permit decision has landed literally and figuratively on the White House’s doorstep. Several key union allies and the Canadian government are pitted against environmental and youth activists who are threatening to turn Keystone into a campaign issue for President Obama.
The question of whether to allow construction of the pipeline has spawned football-themed ads in Nebraska, protests across the country and Canadian-led strategy sessions for members of Congress in the offices of a D.C. law firm. And the State Department, which is charged with making the permit decision because the pipeline crosses an international border, is on the spot for its handling of the review process.
“This project represents a collision of multiple national interests and multiple political interests,” said P.J. Crowley, who served as spokesman for the State Department during part of the review process. “Energy security and environment normally go together, but in this case they are somewhat at odds. All have come together to make this a bigger deal than it might have appeared at first blush.”
Charles K. Ebinger, a senior fellow for energy at the Brookings Institution, said the issue has “become a test case for the Democrats,” with two factions within the Obama camp asking the same question: “Is he with us or against us?”
“I do think it has become a defining political issue,” Ebinger said. “I don’t think he’s going to win any friends whichever way he goes.”
TransCanada applied in 2008 for a permit to build the pipeline. In the early stages of the process, the pipeline’s backers had plenty of reasons to be optimistic about winning approval. Only one U.S. environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, had an anti-oil-sands project up and running. Not only had TransCanada won approval for an earlier stage of Keystone, but the State Department approved another oil sands pipeline, Enbridge Energy’s Alberta Clipper, in August 2009.
Canadian Embassy officials made repeated rounds on Capitol Hill to enlist support, distributing fact sheets about oil sands production — also called tar sands because operators extract a viscous oil called “bitumen” from formations of sand, clay and water — and the number of jobs a new pipeline could generate in the United States. Oil companies that extract crude from the oil sands — Shell, Exxon Mobil and Chevron — and those with refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast — Valero Energy, Shell and Total — supported the pipeline.