Is the Pipeline Victory a Turning Point for the Climate Movement?

by Ted Glick

Two days ago I was convinced that the amazing Keystone XL pipeline victory won by the North American climate movement on November 10 was going to be, without question, a pivotal turning point. Today, having thought more about it, I’d say it’s more like somewhere between “maybe” and “probably.”


Victory is in the Eye of the Beholder

I’m reminded of another “victory” that many in the climate and broader progressive movement were feeling just about three years ago: Obama’s election. That one didn’t exactly turn out the way many of us thought it would.

Obama does deserve credit and thanks for the decision he made to put off a final decision about the tar sands Keystone XL pipeline until sometime in 2013. This is a major blow to Transcanada and their efforts to expand tar sands oil production. It’s a rare instance where a fix that was in was “unfixed’ and overturned because of the power of a genuinely popular national movement. Without such a movement, there is no way that Obama would have done what he did.

This is the most important thing about this victory. It shows what can happen when groups and constituencies which don’t ordinarily work together do so in a united, diverse campaign built upon mutual respect and a multi-tactical approach that ranges from traditional lobbying of government officials to massive and sustained nonviolent civil disobedience.

Any Means Necessary

Would it have been better if Obama had explicitly turned this pipeline down, explaining that he was doing so, in part, because of the urgent need to stop extreme energy extraction and get serious about energy efficiency and a shift to renewables? That the extreme weather events we are regularly experiencing in the U.S. need to be a wakeup call? That it’s time to do what he said he would do in 2008, “free America from the tyranny of oil?”

Yes, but I don’t think too many of us in the pipeline fight were expecting this. We thought what happened was the best we could realistically hope for.

President Obama issued a short statement after his State Department announced the pipeline delay. In it he spoke of “progress we’ve made towards strengthening our nation’s energy security,” with the first example of three being “responsibly expanding domestic oil and gas production.” His administration announced earlier this week that it would be moving to expand offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic Ocean off Alaska.

Obama rarely even mentions the words “climate change” anymore. It wasn’t mentioned in this statement, though there was mention of it in the State Department announcement.

Climate Change Movement Can Overcome Big Oil

If the climate movement is going to make this pipeline victory a launching pad for future victories, become a political force that can eventually overcome the power of Big Oil and the coal and gas industries, it has to be crystal clear that Barack Obama is not our ally. On the other hand, his personal political history shows that he is someone who can be moved to respond to effective, persistent, broad-based and aggressive pressure.

Frederick Douglass had it right:

“Power concedes nothing with a demand. It never did, and it never will.”

He went on to say words even more important, words that those who genuinely want a justice-based, clean energy revolution need to take to heart:

“Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blow, or with both.

“The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

It is long past time to end the “tyranny of oil,” the tyranny of the tar sands region destroyers, the mountaintop removers, the frackers, those who want to drill the Arctic Ocean and the deep oceans, those extremist energy extractors who are so central a part of the 1%. This tiny group of multi-millionaires and billionaires is driving the world toward the abyss of catastrophic climate change.

Next up for climate activists on the east coast: a massive demonstration November 21st in support of a continued moratorium on fracking in the Delaware River Basin region. Let’s bring the spirit of the no-pipeline movement to Trenton, N.J. on that day. Go to to learn more and sign up.

Ain’t no power like the power of the people IF the power of the people don’t stop. Φ

Ted Glick is the Policy Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and is a co-founder of the Climate Crisis Coalition, but these views are solely his own. Past writings and other information can be found at

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