The Keystone Mistake

Last week, the United States Senate cast votes on a large number of amendments to its budget proposal, many unrelated to the actual budget. One of those amendments was a resolution calling on President Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. It passed on a 62-37 vote. It has no policy effect, but the numbers and the headlines are rich with symbolic value. Whether President Obama will heed its will is unclear, but the message is unmistakable.

Environmental activists were, naturally, outraged. The executive director of the Sierra Club declared that the “vague, non-binding resolution does nothing but show how eager these Senators are to please their Big Oil masters.” The campaigns director of Oil Change International declared that the “only thing this amendment would actually do is show which Senators would rather follow Big Oil’s money rather than listen to the people who elected them.”

Keystone XL has been the focus of the environmental movement for two years now. In 2011, activists were arrested outside the White House while demanding the president block the pipeline. The fight has continued ever since. Last month, the Sierra Club committed its first act of civil disobedience in its battle to stop the pipeline, and its executive director was among those jailed for it. Prominent activist Bill McKibben has described the Keystone fight as “the biggest environmental movement in recent history” and denounced the pipeline’s potential approval as “game over for the climate.”

This commitment has come in the face of a long series of setbacks, especially in the last year. Before the Senate vote, the State Department gave the pipeline its seal of approval. Before that, the Republican governor of Nebraska switched from opposing to supporting the pipeline. Though the president has yet to make a decision, the political winds seem to be blowing in favor of the pipeline. It seems not many people believe this is actually “game over for the climate.”

The Senate vote makes clear that the environmental movement made a mistake when it chose Keystone XL as its defining goal. Developing Canada’s tar sands may be bad for the planet, but the focus on it at the expense of other causes was counterproductive to achieving the movement’s broader goals.

By emphasizing the pipeline, the movement has driven a wedge between itself and other members of the liberal coalition. Labor groups, long the core institution of the American left, are divided about the issue. The AFL-CIO has not taken a side, but it has made general statements indicating tacit support for the pipeline. America’s Building Trades Unions and several construction unions have been quite vocal about their support for it as a source for new jobs. Though both groups always come together to defeat the conservatives, the quarrel between organized labor and climate activists creates ugly optics.

There is an even bigger problem than that. Though activists insist otherwise, in picking a fight with Keystone, they also picked a fight with public opinion. Gallup and Washington Post polls from 2012 showed that about 60 percent of the public supports the pipeline. Gallup broke their poll down by party and found that even a plurality of Democrats support it. It is unsurprising, then, that a handful of Democratic Senators, most from red states, cast their votes the way they did. Keystone XL is just popular.

Fortunately, the pipeline is an anomaly. Environmentalists enjoy strong public support on many other issues. An April Gallup poll found majority support for increasing industry and vehicle emissions standards, imposing controls on carbon emissions, and government investment in alternative energy sources. Some of those policies even had support from a majority of Republicans.

Any of those ideas could have been the rallying cry of the environmental movement. It is not too late to pivot now. Climate activists would be wise to start pushing hard for more public investment in green jobs. The 2012 Gallup survey found 60 percent of Americans supported that idea, including 51 percent of Republicans. Expanding the green jobs agenda would bind support for the planet to support for labor, get people back to work, and expand the market for alternatives to fossil fuels. If the movement needs a single unifying cause, expanding the clean energy industry would be a more practical one than fighting Keystone XL.

Of course, this is all somewhat speculative. Climate change is going to have to be confronted in more limited ways until Congress is friendlier to the cause. Part of the reason the pipeline became so important was that activists recognized that. They wanted to put pressure on President Obama to take action without having to overcome congressional inertia. That’s a fine approach, but to link it to a single issue obscures steps the administration has already taken. It has invested billions into the clean energy industry, enacted new rules to reduce air pollution, tightened fuel efficiency standards, and followed the lead of climate-conscious officials in the EPA and the Energy Department. Environmentalists want the administration to prove its seriousness about climate change, when in fact it already has.

Whether Keystone XL is built or not, the larger problem of climate change will persist. It will take an engaged liberal coalition and clear public support to make any progress. Being bogged down in the Keystone XL fight diverts resources from efforts to create a greener economy and move away from dependence on fossil fuels. That is the real goal, and the left and the environmental movement should not lose sight of it.

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