Bill McKibben, the author and environmental activist who helped lead a grassroots campaign against the Keystone XL oil pipeline, says 2016 will see the “Keystone-ization” of projects across the U.S.
“Every coal mine, every frack well, every oil export terminal ... all of them are being met with strict, strict resistance,” said McKibben, one of more than 1,200 people arrested for protesting Keystone in front of the White House.
“There’s people arrested every day now around the country taking on these infrastructure projects, the kind of spread of civil disobedience like we’ve never seen.”
McKibben, 55, is at the center of the “keep it in the ground” movement, which seeks to stop planned coal mines, oil wells and fossil fuel transportation infrastructure across the country with protests and pressure on local governments.
Those in the movement say humans have already gone too far down the path of climate change and can’t afford to dig up any more fossil fuels.
Activists have fought projects across the United States, successfully blocking the country’s largest planned coal strip mine in Montana, protesting a California coal export terminal and demonstrating against proposed oil drilling projects in Nevada and the Gulf of Mexico.
In Washington, a Republican-controlled Congress is waging its own fight against the Obama administration’s efforts to curb carbon emission from power plants.
McKibben, a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, has spent the past three decades writing about climate change, leading marches and rallying protests against fossil fuel companies.
He argues that preserving nature is a virtue in and of itself but that humans have put the planet and society in peril through rampant use of fossil fuels.
McKibben was one of the earliest and most prominent voices against Keystone, but he says the battle had limited long-term political impact. Even so, it was the first crack in the fossil fuel industry’s armor, he says.
“Congress is so stuck in its ways and polarized and whatever that it’s sort of the last place that sort of seems cut off from the rest of the country’s politics,” said McKibben, who was arrested in early March protesting a planned methane storage facility in upstate New York. “But [Keystone] had a huge effect on helping lots of other people see that they can take on the fossil fuel industry.”
“To tell you the truth, Keystone was a big fight, but it wasn’t any bigger than a lot of other things,” he added.
The seven-year battle over the project, which planned to transport oil sands crude from Canada to the Gulf, ended in November when President Obama rejected a cross-border permit. He cited climate change as his main reason for the decision.
Prominent environmental advocacy groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace are on the same page as McKibben, touting the Keystone victory as a pivotal moment for a movement always on its heels.
“Sometimes in the environmental movement, we underestimate our powers a little bit,” said Kelly Mitchell, energy campaign director for Greenpeace USA. “We’re used to thinking of ourselves as the scrappy David against the oil industry’s Goliath, and I think Keystone was an important moment where we got to see the real power of the climate movement reflected.”
The Sierra Club launched a campaign during the George W. Bush administration against planned and active coal mines; and while coal is still the United States’s primary source, its share of the countryt’s electricity production has fallen around 20 percent since 2000, according to federal data.
Even so, the Keystone victory is one of several factors that have swung momentum in environmentalists’ favor, says Michael Brune, the group’s executive director.
“There have been many victories against the fossil fuel industry over the last several years, but it’s definitely clear that the climate movement has the wind at our sails that we’ve never enjoyed before,” he said.
The Obama administration recently scrapped Atlantic and Alaskan oil drilling plans and declared a moratorium on public land leases for coal mining.
Low gas prices have also helped the environmental movement, because rising prices at the pump tend to shift momentum to the oil and gas industry.
Fossil fuel corporations are already are pushing back hard, arguing that American innovation has slashed carbon emissions. They argue that keeping fossil fuels in the ground would drive up energy prices, which would burden low-income Americans the most.
“I find it somewhat absurd and almost disingenuous that the environmental community is denying the progress the United States is making in leading the world in bringing down carbon emissions from using more clean-burning natural gas,” said American Petroleum Institute executive vice president Louis Finkel.
More than 70 percent of Americans believe the government should take any steps necessary to protect the environment, and 40 percent say stricter environmental laws do too much damage to the economy, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey.
But Finkel said it is a “false choice to have to choose between the environment and low energy prices, because we need to do both.”
Groups that fight against what they see as overzealous government energy regulation say the keep-it-in-the-ground agenda hurts the people it purports to protect.
“By making energy more expensive, that takes money right out of people’s pockets,” said Christopher Warren, communications director for the American Energy Alliance. “I see a direct tie here between health and wealth, but the agenda that the McKibbens of the world pursue would make people poorer. … I don’t see how they can reconcile that.”
McKibben himself has advocated for a world of small, self-sustaining communities, which hasn’t gained as much acceptance as his work to end fossil fuel use. But with the Keystone battle behind him, the push to keep fuel in the ground will continue.
“With all this good spirit, this reminds me very much of the first day of the Keystone pipeline arrests in Washington,” said McKibben in New York shortly before he was arrested there. “But this time, we’ve got a beautiful lake in the background instead of the White House.”