How the Keystone XL Pipeline Came To Be Unbuilt

December 14, 2015

President Obama ended TransCanada’s permit application to build the $8 billion Keystone XL pipeline last month. Condensing that complicated decision into a pint cup, he acknowledged America’s role as a global leader in climate change action, and noted that approving KXL would have undercut that leadership.

Keystone XL Pipeline Protest at White House - Ben & Jerry's

Keystone XL pipeline protest, Washington, DC, November 2011. Source: Tar Sands Action

Stretching 1,179 miles from east-central Alberta, Canada, to the Texas Gulf Coast, KXL would have transported 830,000 barrels of dirty tar sands oil per day. The chief beef among opponents, including top climate scientists, was the pipeline’s capacity to adversely impact the climate. Moreover, full development of the Alberta tar sands would unleash a vast reservoir of carbon to be released into the atmosphere, making it nearly impossible to meet international goals of keeping global warming below 2°C.

To that end, Obama’s curbing of KXL has been hailed as a win for the environment—a major step forward in stymieing the fossil fuel colossus. But it’s also a story rooted in grassroots activism and its power to enact positive change for the planet.

This is the inside scoop on how grassroots activism put the kibosh on America’s most famous pipeline.


10 Steps That Stopped the Pipeline

1) In 2008, the State Department was expected to breeze Keystone XL through the approval process, with or without Obama wining the White House. But in 2011, opponents from affected communities along the proposed route combined forces with environmental lobbyists, igniting the Keystone debate.

2) Soon after, climate action group jumped on board, fuelling anti-pipeline sentiment.

3) As KXL emerged as a polarizing political issue, its stature in the media snowballed. Meanwhile, the force fighting it also swelled thanks to national environmental organizations such as NRDC, the Sierra Club, and the National Wildlife Federation, alongside Native American and local landowner groups, pushing their arguments into the mainstream.

4) While grassroots activists organized from outside Washington DC, policy experts worked internal channels, lobbying the government and arming citizen activists with data-driven, science-based sustenance.

5) In 2011, NASA climate scientist James Hansen wrote that fully developing the tar sands would mean "game over" for the climate. According to Grist, it was a significant turning point. Hansen said that in order to keep global warming at a simmer, remaining fossil fuels—like tar sands oil—should be left underground. And KXL, thus, went from national scuffle to a scrap with planet-wide implications.

Keystone XL Pipeline Protest - Ben & Jerry's

Keystone XL pipeline protest, Washington, DC, November 2011. Source: Tar Sands Action

6) Rallying allies, looked to civil rights and LGBT groups for inspiration, and linked up with MoveOn and for support. In November 2011, more than 10,000 anti-pipeline protesters surrounded the White House. Then, in February 2012, mobilized its base for a 24-hour, 800,000-message call-in to the Senate. Meantime, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney promised in April 2012, "I will build that pipeline if I have to myself."

7) In 2013, Romney stowed his shovel when a reelected Obama shifted the terms of the debate in the climate movement’s favor. In a speech at Georgetown University, the president said if KXL were to "significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution," he wouldn’t approve it.

8) But in January 2014, the State Department temporarily scuttled that rhetoric with its revised Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project. The document said the tar sands would be developed with or without KXL. And it concluded that building the pipeline would have no significant impact on climate change.

9) Activists countered with new studies highlighting environmental risks along the route. And driving home the pipeline’s impracticality, in April 2014 the anti-KXL coalition amassed on the National Mall for "Reject and Protect"—a week of educational sessions culminating in a rally and march.

10) For now, the argument that KXL would have had no climate impact has run out of gas. In addition, Obama said in his November 2015 announcement that KXL wouldn’t benefit the U.S. economy, nor would it increase U.S. energy security or help lower gas prices—which are currently idling at less than $50/barrel.

In a recent statement, executive director May Boeve said the win is just the beginning. “We’re looking to build on this victory, and show that if it’s wrong to build Keystone XL because of its impact on our climate, it’s wrong to build any new fossil fuel infrastructure, period.”