Why Obama Killed Keystone
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

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Why Obama Killed Keystone

How and why Obama's thinking "evolved" on the nation's most controversial pipeline.

President Obama has announced that his administration is officially rejecting the long-embattled Keystone XL, a 1,179-mile pipeline that would have transported crude oil from the tar sands in Alberta to the US Gulf Coast. The fate of TransCanda's pipeline had been lingering in purgatory for seven years, the vast majority of Obama's presidency. That's because tar sands oil is considered among the dirtiest on the planet, and environmentalists rallied around halting the Keystone XL as a climate cause. And after a well-organized, persistent campaign, they successfully drove Obama's thinking to evolve on the issue.

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"John Kerry informed me the State Department has decided that KXL would not serve the national interests of the US," Obama said in a press conference today. "I agree with that decision." (Because the pipeline would have crossed an international border, the decision was officially a State Department matter.)

Predictably, Republicans are already claiming outrage, while Democrats are trumpeting support—the announcement will likely initiate a fresh round of debate on the issue, and drag it onto the presidential campaign trail.

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The rejection is being hailed as a victory for the environmental movement, and indeed, it is—relentless campaigning against the project organized by the likes of 350.org, Tar Sands Action Network, and many of the big green groups is, essentially, the reason Obama killed Keystone.

The pipeline was initially marked up as yet another piece of oil infrastructure, the kind that was routinely and quietly approved across the US with little to no fanfare. Sources indicate that the State Department had planned on approving the project when it was first proposed in 2008.

However, the massive environmental footprint that the Canadian tar sands incurs—not only was the project so destructive to the nation's boreal forests that it was visible from space, but the crude pulled out of the tar sands was much dirtier and energy-intensive to extract than standard oil, and thus much worse for the climate—attracted the focus of the environmental movement.

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Green groups had already taken to calling it the "most destructive project on earth," and, when it became clear that oil produced there was considerably more polluting than conventional crude, it became a locus of action for the ascendent climate movement. Well-known climatologist Dr. James Hansen famously said it would be "game over for the climate" if we were to extract and burn all the crude found within.

Meanwhile, led by Bill McKibben, 350.org, student activists, and environmentalists, a series of colorful protests drew attention to the pipeline in Washington DC, Nebraska (where large segments were slated for construction, over important and vulnerable aquifers), and beyond.

The major protests began in 2011, and targeted the White House, which was mulling the decision to approve. The outcry made enough of an impression to delay the decision, starting a precedent that would mark the next four years. 2012 saw more, and bigger protests. Still more demonstrations came in 2013, and the movement grew. What followed was years of partisan back-and-forth between the administration and Republicans, who saw a window to attack the president for holding up industry.

The anti-Keystone crusade was powerful, and resonated with environmentalists, but rejecting the pipeline was never popular with a majority of US voters. The most recent polling available, earlier this year, shows that a slim majority was still in favor of constructing the pipeline.

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Still, the increased visibility of the opposition movement gave Obama the cover he needed to reconsider the pipeline, and to link it to his climate policy, which he clearly began to consider a greater part of his legacy as his presidency progressed.

As recently as 2012, Obama stood at a Keystone construction site and lauded the American oil industry. Over the years, the ferocity and consistency of the anti-Keystone movement, which picked up high-profile supporters like Mark Ruffalo and Naomi Klein, seemed to sway Obama's thinking. He began to include the climate assessment in his Keystone statements.

Earlier this year, he vetoed a bill that would have approved the pipeline, saying that the State Department hadn't finished its assessment.

In a way, that attitude culminated today when Obama denied the Keystone project. He articulated three reasons: It wouldn't help the economy, it wouldn't affect gas prices, and it wouldn't help improve energy security—but it would contribute to climate change.

"It would not make a meaningful contribution to our economy," he said, and he's right. Studies have shown that it would have created only temporary jobs, and not many of them. Meanwhile, as Obama positions the US to participate in the global climate talks taking place in Paris at the end of the month, he needs to be able to tout hardline carbon-cutting policy. Denying the Keystone fits the bill.

"Approving this project would have undercut American leadership," Obama said. "That's the biggest risk we take. Not acting." If we're going to prevent large parts of the earth from becoming uninhabitable "within our lifetimes," Obama said, "we're going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them."

It was a powerful statement, loaded, in fact, with language from the next evolution of the anti-Keystone grassroots movement, whose newest aim is to prevent new oil and coal development outright—to "keep it in the ground."