Why the Anti-Keystone Movement Was Never Just About a Pipeline

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 22 2013 5:42 AM

More Than a Pipe Dream

The anti-Keystone movement was never just about blocking a pipeline. It aimed to awaken a new environmental movement—and it’s already succeeded.

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Many other climate-oriented campaigns saw an influx of participants last summer, as major actions were held against mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, fracking in the Northeast, and coal exports in the Northwest. But the biggest campaign that emerged from this was Tar Sands Blockade, which united Occupy activists, rural East Texas landowners, and indigenous and minority communities in a struggle to physically block construction of the Keystone XL pipeline already under way.

Since August, the group has coordinated 19 actions in more than a dozen counties in Oklahoma and Texas, leading to 68 arrests—including a 79-year-old grandmother who u-locked her neck to construction equipment. The campaign has also spurred nationwide protest. During one week in March there were 55 actions in 15 states, with hundreds risking arrest.

“It's not just about the anti-KXL message,” said Kim Huynh, an organizer with Tar Sands Blockade, “but also the anti-KXL messenger. We have sought to elevate the voices and perspectives of the individuals and communities most impacted by tar sands—communities being poisoned like the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation at the point of tar sands extraction and like the primarily Latino neighborhoods in Houston at the point of tar sands refining.”

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This kind of work has excited longtime environmentalists like James Gustave Speth, who says, “I think we will soon see a real climate victims movement. That is very different from a movement based on intellectual understanding and forecasts.”

No one knows how the Keystone pipeline decision will be decided, but even if it’s a loss for the environmentalists, it's just one battle in a much bigger fight. And judging by a recent online “Keystone XL Pledge of Resistance”—which gathered nearly 60,000 signatures for acts of peaceful civil disobedience “should it be necessary”— people are ready for that fight.

“The success of the campaign is not measured just on the pragmatic side of stopping the pipeline,” Leonard said. “As far as that goes, I think we made a noble effort. I'm not going to say we've lost, but I think it's certainly a deeper debate and question. In terms of being able to transform the movement in a really positive and productive way for any issue or campaign moving forward, we've had tremendous success there. To me, that's arguably the more important side of things.”

For McKibben, the sight of nearly 50,000 people on the National Mall in February was more than he could have ever imagined on that day of his first arrest, when he and a few others were the only voices of resistance. Now, he sees an “emerging fossil fuel resistance,” adding, “and it's nice to be a small part of it.”

Bryan Farrell is an editor for Waging Nonviolence, a source for daily news and analysis on resistance movements around the world.