Obama Delays Keystone XL Decision for 12-18 Months, Pipeline's Future in Doubt

Clayton Conn, Tar Sands Action via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In response to mounting public opposition to the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline, the Obama administration has announced that it will conduct an additional 12-18 month review before deciding whether to approve it. That means Obama will effectively delay the decision at least until after the 2012 elections -- which some industry insiders say may end up killing the proposal outright.

Obama issued the following statement: "Because this permit decision could affect the health and safety of the American people as well as the environment, and because a number of concerns have been raised through a public process, we should take the time to ensure that all questions are properly addressed and all the potential impacts are properly understood."

It is, needless to say, a major victory for the Tar Sands Action campaign, which was lead and endorsed by a coalition of the nation's top environmental groups. Bill McKibben, the renowned author and a lead organizer of the effort, released a jubilant statement after the news broke.

“A done deal has come spectacularly undone," McKibben said. "The American people spoke loudly and today the President responded, at least in part. Six months ago, almost no one outside the pipeline route even knew about Keystone XL. One month ago, a secret poll of “energy insiders” by the National Journal found that “virtually all” expected easy approval of the pipeline by year’s end."

But months of campaigning and increasingly public protests brought the pipeline into the spotlight. In a series of protests in late August, 1,253 students, environmentalists, scientists, and others were arrested outside the White House protesting the pipeline. Opposition to the pipeline picked up steam in Nebraska, where it would threaten farmlands and an underground aquifer. Just last week, 12,000 tar sands protesters returned to the same spot to form a human chain around the White House. When I spoke to McKibben at that event, the outcome of all those efforts was still in doubt.

"We'll see," McKibben told me, when I asked him what he thought Obama was going to do. "We'll see if he's an oil guy or a people guy."

By deciding to delay the decision, Obama can't really claim he's either. But it's clear that the public outcry over the pipeline has caused him to reevaluate his stance on the matter -- the pipeline was all but a shoo-in before the environmental movement mobilized. And indeed, green groups are (rightfully) celebrating today's events. Gene Kapinski, the president of the League of Conservation Voters, announced, “We strongly applaud the Obama administration’s prudent delay of this dangerous pipeline, which would increase global warming pollution. It is a big win for our environment, our democracy, and the health and safety of surrounding communities."

Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, released a statement saying that “This do-over is likely a lethal blow. The project won’t be able to stand the scrutiny because Americans now understand that it will increase our addiction to dirty, expensive tar sands oil for decades."

It has been quite some time since the environmental movement has scored such a well-publicized victory, and it is no doubt an important one. After the recent failures in the climate and clean energy policy arena, beating back such a controversial "carbon bomb" will help put some much-needed wind behind greens' sails. And above all, it is a fine example of the power of numbers, and the power of protest: with unwavering dedication and some clever organizing tactics, ordinary citizens were able to use their voices to overcome the influence of oily special interests in D.C. Which, given the ever-increasing influence those interests command, is an achievement indeed.

Tags: Barack Obama | Oil | Tar Sands | Tar Sands Action