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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Keystone Showdown
distributed 1/9/15 - ©2015

The long-running dispute over the Keystone XL pipeline is coming to a head.

The US House has scheduled a vote this afternoon to force approval of the pipeline's construction, and the US Senate will vote on the issue soon. President Obama has announced that he'll veto that legislation. A Senate vote to override the veto would be frighteningly close.

This morning, the Nebraska Supreme Court released a ruling that OKs the disputed pipeline routing through that state. As anti-pipeline activists at BoldNebraska wrote, "This ruling does clear the way for the State Department to complete their analysis and for federal agencies to weigh in on risks to water and climate." The Nebraska decision is one of the final steps needed before President Obama approves or rejects the pipeline application -- and his recent statements make rejection look plausible.

As the legislative and administrative branches move toward decisions, today is a good time to reflect broadly on the Keystone issue.

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There was a time -- perhaps three and a half years ago -- when "Keystone" was just a piece of rock at the top of an arch. But in the summer of 2011, some of us started to hear about the emerging horror of tar sands extraction in Canada, and the proposal to build a pipeline for the stuff across the middle of the US. A long Notes that summer explained some of the dangers of that "Canadian gunk" and started to mobilize opposition to the Keystone XL project. As I wrote in 2011, "This fall, President Obama will decide whether to approve a permit for a new pipeline to carry that crud from Canada to refineries in Texas."

The fact that no decision has been made in all of those years is one of the astonishing and hopeful details for those of us who have been fighting for action on climate and energy issues. Three years ago, almost everybody expected quick and non-controversial approval, but a loud, well-organized movement has delayed that decision, and made Keystone XL the most visible symbol of the climate struggle.

It is important to remember why Keystone was targeted for opposition. Last month, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet wrote to some of his constituents that the numbers about carbon emissions from tar sands "would suggest that Keystone XL does not deserve the attention it has received in our domestic fight against climate change." But Keystone was not taken on because it was the most dramatic way to limit emissions. Activists grabbed the pipeline permit issue because that decision would be made by the President alone.

Strategically, a presidential decision on a single pipeline application is a whole different ball game than a legislative fight about energy policy, or even administrative rules about important issues like power plant emissions. Keystone has provided a clear choice about a single project, a yes-or-no decision by one person. No confusing morass of policy details, no political negotiations to secure congressional votes. It is simple and direct, and that makes it easy for activists to use.

And the activists have used it very well. In the fall of 2011, twelve hundred upstanding citizens were arrested at the White House fence, demanding rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline as an essential element of climate action. Those arrests, which went on day after day, moved Keystone into the news. The pipeline became a vehicle for education about fossil fuels and climate change, about the environmental and social disruption of tar sands mining, about the power of oil industries, and about who benefits -- and not -- from the tar sands. The pipeline has provided a context to debate whether the extraction of tar sands, or any fossil fuel, is "inevitable." If Keystone is rejected, will that fuel just be moved somewhere else, or might we have the ability to keep it in the ground?

Through the years, Keystone has become more than a single decision. It has become a symbol of the larger movement to limit climate change, and especially the movement to keep coal, oil, gas and tar sands in the ground. There are some who try to diminish the importance of Keystone by saying it is "just a symbol." Actually, though, Keystone is critically important precisely because it has become the symbol.

The US flag is "just a symbol." The cross is "just a symbol" of the Christian faith. A wedding ring is "just a symbol" of love and commitment. Symbols are immensely powerful. They convey meaning and importance far beyond their face value. Symbols touch our hearts, souls and spirits through an intertwining of stories and experience, of personal and social meaning. Symbols rise above ordinary communication to represent our values and our longings.

Keystone -- a choice by one man about a single pipeline permit -- symbolizes countless other decisions and issues. It has become a way to ask, "Will we ever decide to protect the climate instead of comply with the culture of fossil fuels?" Because Keystone has symbolic meaning, the decisions by President Obama and the US Congress also have symbolic power. Approval of the pipeline says that we'll always stick with business as usual -- and the fact that the House and Senate are making Keystone their first votes of this session show the symbolic power on that side of the question. Rejecting the pipeline announces that climate impacts really are an important consideration in our national interest.

Three or four years ago, the conventional wisdom was that the US government could not, or would not, place the climate above economics and "energy independence." But a movement energized by Keystone has made the pipeline's approval unlikely, and has spawned much broader activism. The global work toward divestment from fossil fuels has roots in the Keystone protest. Last fall's People's Climate March in New York City reflected some of the diverse coalitions that have been formed by the Keystone fight -- joining ranchers, Native Americans and labor unions with the "usual suspects" of climate action.

Two commentaries yesterday -- David Roberts on Grist, "Here's why the Keystone fight isn't pointless", and Jamie Henn's "The Keystone XL Pipeline Debate is Right Where We Want It" -- make similar points about how Keystone has shaped and mobilized a strong national and international movement.

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Keystone XL is "simple" in comparison to other climate and energy issues. But it is still tied to lots of complicated scientific, economic, technical, political and moral details. I've tried to address many of those questions in Notes through the last 40-some months, because this symbolic issue highlights important choices about faith and ethics.

Eco-Justice Ministries has persistently advocated for rejection of the pipeline, and we've called on our constituents -- we've called on you -- to voice your opposition to Keystone to the President, your members of Congress, and in witness to your community.

The next few weeks may bring us to a final showdown, with Congress acting to force approval, and the President (we hope) using his authority to reject the pipeline. I urge you, once again, to be vocal. Tell your Senator that you oppose the pipeline. Tell the President that now is the time to reject it. (Friends of the Earth has one of what will be many ways that you can write to the President with that message. )

It has been a long and remarkable fight over an obscure pipeline. In the coming days, let us keep building on the power of the movement, and work for the bold decisions needed to protect God's creation.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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