There’s a sense in which a political insurgency is like a startup company: Everyone works incredibly hard, and you usually fail. But the learning curve is remarkable.
Six months ago, pretty much the only people who’d heard of the Keystone XL pipeline were the oil executives planning it, and the very dedicated people living along its planned 1,700-mile route who’d been doing all they could think of to ﬁght it. And since they were in the kind of places—Indian reservations, Nebraska ranches—that the rest of the world doesn’t pay enough attention to, their ﬁght seemed pretty hopeless.
By October, however, the pipeline had become the ﬁercest environmental battle in many years. The president was being greeted by hecklers everywhere he went—not Tea Party hecklers, but the exact same kids who’d worked for him in 2008, now demanding that he make good on his promises. Big donors were threatening to turn off the spigot—Michael Kieschnick, of Credo, helped turn out a thousand people for a San Francisco protest, and then told reporters that, though he’d given $60 million to progressive causes, Obama was cut off unless he nixed the pipeline. And people had put even more than money on the line. In late August, 1,253 people went to jail over two weeks in protests outside the White House, the largest display of civil disobedience in decades.
It happened, most of all, because of a calculation made by one man, NASA’s James Hansen, who said in late spring that the tar sands of Alberta, the source of this pipeline, held the second-largest pool of carbon on earth. If you could burn it all overnight, which happily you can’t, the planet’s atmospheric concentration of CO2 would rise from its current 393 parts per million to 540 parts per million. Or, less technically, it would be "essentially game over for the climate."
That became the rallying cry; people who had waited for some way to grapple with the enormous abstraction that is global warming lined up to get locked up.
But, of course, once we started looking more closely at the question, many of us started discovering other curiosities about the proposed pipeline—things that ﬁt altogether too neatly with the worldview that erupted in lower Manhattan in mid-September.
For one thing, its backers were selling the pipe as a source of energy security—oil from friendly Christian-type people in Canada. But it turned out that the reﬁneries on the Gulf at the end of the pipeline were located in export zones, and that much if not most of the oil was destined to be sold as diesel in Europe and Latin America.
And its proponents were selling the pipeline as a source of jobs—in some enthusiastic cases they given numbers as high as 250,000, though the more restrained contented themselves with 20,000. But the only studies of the issue had been paid for by TransCanada, the company that wanted to build the pipeline, and they were… off. They showed the pipeline creating 10 times as many jobs per mile on the American side of the border as the Canadian side, for instance. The only sober estimate came from researchers at Cornell (PDF)—they found that indeed the pipeline would create 2,350 to 4,500 jobs for the year or two it took to build, and not many after that. (That’s the point of a pipeline, really.) They also found that by raising the price of gasoline in the Midwest, the new pipe would kill as many jobs as it created. That’s right: a wash.
That wasn’t the only squirrelly study circling the pipeline, however. The State Department was charged with conducting an environmental review of the project, and it somehow concluded that its impact would be negligible. That was despite the letter from 20 of the nation’s top scientists who said it would endanger the planet—and despite the spills of tar sands oil from precursor pipelines that fouled the Kalamazoo and Yellowstone Rivers in the last year alone.
How did the State Department reach its risible conclusion? They asked TransCanada to nominate some ﬁrms to conduct the review. TransCanada provided three names, of which State helpfully picked the ﬁrst, a company called Entrix. Some dedicated sleuthing (i.e., clicking on the company’s web page) uncovered that Entrix listed TransCanada as a "major client." Please don’t go around saying that nobody at Occupy Wall Street knows what they’re talking about. This is exactly what they’re talking about—the unholy wedding of corporate money and government power. Sometimes it’s the economy that crashes as a result, and sometimes it’s the atmosphere.
That corporate power may well carry the day in this ﬁght, too. TransCanada and the oil companies have responded by hiring ever more lobbyists, but the real threat is what will happen if Obama does the right thing and blocks the pipeline (he says he’ll make a decision by year’s end). Doubtless his team is spooked by the thought of oil company money poured into campaign commercials.
So in a sense it will be a test of the president’s character. On November 6, exactly one year before the next election, we’ll descend on the White House again, this time not to get arrested but simply to encircle the place with demonstrators. (We’ve tried to ﬁgure out on Google Earth how many people it takes. Answer: many). We’ll be carrying signs, all of them emblazoned with quotes from the president in 2008: "Time to end the tyranny of oil" and "In my administration the rise of the oceans will begin to slow and the planet begin to heal." Obama was an insurgent once too—we’ll see if there’s any of that ﬁght left in him, or if he’s gone completely D.C.