Game over for Keystone KXL: How environmentalists created Obama’s new climate test

George Hoberg
November 6, 2015

Environmentalists protesting Keystone XL at White House

Obama’s decision today to reject the Keystone XL pipeline brings a seven year saga to a close (well, except for the lawsuits). It is an extraordinary victory for the climate movement, but in this post I wanted to focus on the narrower issue of the rationale for today’s decision. It is extraordinary in how it vindicates the symbolic power of the pipeline.

US environmentalists transformed the Keystone XL decision into a test of climate leadership.’s Bill McKibben, echoing climate scientist James Hansen, repeatedly used the frame of the pipeline being a fuse to one of “the largest carbon bombs on the planet,” the exploitation of which would mean “game over for the climate.”

Obama sent a powerful signal about his climate views and this particular pipeline in his famous Georgetown speech in June 2013, where he spelled out the “climate test”:

“Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.”

I was struck that today’s was not based on a decision that Keystone XL “would significant exacerbate” GHG emissions. Instead, today’s decision states “the proposed project by itself is unlikely to significant impact the level of GHG-intensive extraction of oil sands” (p. 29). Despite finding little measurable impact on GHG emissions, the Record of Decision continued, “it is critical for the United States to prioritize actions that are not perceived as enabling further GHG emissions globally.”

The decision cites the broader standard of the “net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate,” but makes that about global political reaction, not modelling estimates. In effect, the decision transforms Obama’s climate test into a broader consideration of the impact of the decision of global climate politics:

“A key consideration at this time is that granting a Presidential Permit for this proposed Project would undermine U.S. climate leadership and thereby have an adverse impact on encouraging other States to combat climate change and work to achieve and implement a robust and meaningful global climate agreement. Strong climate targets and an effective global climate agreement would lead to a reduction in global GHG emissions that would have a direct and beneficial impact on the national security and other interests of the United States.”

In his public remarks, Obama stressed the role model justification for the decision: “Today, we’re continuing to lead by example, because ultimately, if we’re gonna prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re gonna have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.”

The climate movement, remarkably, transformed Keystone XL into a line in the sand on climate. Today, the very symbolic magnification of importance they manufactured was used as the core rationale for the rejection decision.

What an extraordinary victory!

Addendum: A lot of great journalism and commentary has emerged around this decision by Obama in the broader context.

From the architect of the campaign, Bill McKibben, in The New Yorker
Ben Adler on the activist campaign on Vox
David Roberts on the misguided critique of activism on Vox
Brad Blumer on Obama’s rationale on Vox
Elena Shor with a thorough 7+ year timeline on Politico

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