A Keystone test in the Senate

November 18, 2014

Brian Ward and Alan Maass look at the stakes in a Senate vote on Keystone XL.

BARACK OBAMA and the Democrats will be put to the test today and in the coming days--and it's one of their own who is putting them on the spot.

Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu is forcing a vote Tuesday, November 18, on legislation to authorize the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline to carry some of the world's dirtiest fossil fuel from the Alberta tar sands in Canada all the way to Houston and ports on the Gulf Coast. The House passed its version of an authorization bill last week.

The day before the Senate vote, about 75 people rallied in front of Landrieu's Washington, D.C., home to send a message of opposition to Keystone. The lead banner--held by two women from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and a white Nebraska farmer--read, "Sen. Landrieu: If you're not a climate denier, don't vote like one."

President Obama says he opposes congressional legislation on Keystone, but only because he wants his administration to have control over the approval process. Though the decision has been delayed for three years, the White House has sent mixed signals about whether Obama will ultimately green-light a project that climate scientist James Hansen said would mean "game over" for the environment if it begins operating.

Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu
Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu (John Orrell)

Most Senate Democrats have resisted previous Republican proposals to go around the Obama administration and sanction the pipeline's completion. But Landrieu is part of a wing of Democrats that is as enthusiastic about Keystone as it is about every other scheme of the oil and gas industry. And no wonder--Landrieu got more than $500,000 from political action committees and individuals associated with the oil and gas industry in the last election cycle, raking in more than a quarter of all oil money that went to Democrats.

But Landrieu has a more immediate motive for pushing Keystone right now. She barely survived the November 4 election, where none of the three candidates for her Senate seat got over 50 percent of the vote. With polls showing her behind in the two-way runoff vote coming up in December--against Rep. Bill Cassidy, the sponsor of the Keystone bill in the House--Landrieu is hoping to claim a victory on the pipeline and prove she's as conservative on energy and environmental issues as any Tea Partying Republican.

According to media reports, Landrieu has the support of all 45 Republican senators and at least a dozen Democrats--but she's a vote or two shy of the 60 needed to overcome the Senate rules that allow a minority to block bills from moving forward. So the question now is whether Landrieu's Democratic colleagues maintain their opposition to GOP-backed authorization for Keystone--and doom Landrieu to defeat, losing another seat to Republicans in the upcoming Congress.

If the bill does pass, it will go to Obama. The president will also be under pressure to help out Landrieu before the runoff--but he has stated publicly that he thinks congressional action would short-circuit the administration's approval process, and therefore is expected to veto the bill.

But that doesn't mean he won't eventually approve Keystone. At several points since 2011, the administration seemed on the verge of giving its okay to complete the last legs of the pipeline in the northern Great Plains, only to hesitate in the face of strong activist opposition from environmentalists who recognize what's at stake with this project.

Earlier this year, the State Department issued its final environmental impact review that concluded--against all the evidence--that the Keystone project wouldn't contribute to worsening climate change. This was universally seen as clearly the way for Obama to give the green light. The fact that he hasn't is testament to the determination of the climate justice movement that has been galvanized by the struggle against the pipeline.

IF THE Senate Democrats or Obama block Landrieu's legislation in one way or another, they will hide behind the cloak of process and procedure. They won't answer the obvious objection of climate justice activists: How can the U.S. political establishment even consider approving a project that will export vast amounts of tar sands oil when the scientific evidence is clearer than ever that untapped fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground.

The maneuvering over Keystone comes right after the announcement of a supposedly "historic"--though nonbinding--climate agreement that Obama negotiated with the Chinese government. In an op-ed article for the New York Times, Secretary of State John Kerry described the deal:

Ambitious action by our countries together is the foundations to build the low-carbon global economy needed to combat climate change. The United States intends to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025--a target that is both ambitious and feasible. It roughly doubles the pace of carbon reductions in the period from 2020 to 2025 as compared to the period from 2005 to 2020. It puts us on a path to transform our economy, with emissions reductions on the order of 80 percent by 2050.

That may sound good. But Kerry's public rhetoric is laughable if you bear in mind that his State Department could still approve the Keystone pipeline. How can U.S. officials brag that they are on a path to radically cut greenhouse gas emissions when there is every sign that the political establishment is still leaning toward full exploitation of the Canadian tar sands--the third-largest proven reserves of oil in the world?

THE CLIMATE justice movement is at a new crossroads and needs to prepare to put more pressure on the political system.

If Obama has so far hesitated to make a decision on Keystone, it is most of all because of the series of demonstrations and actions mobilized by the climate justice movement--from the 50,000-strong march in Washington, D.C., in February 2012, to the mass civil disobedience at the White House in March 2014, to this spring's gathering of the Cowboy and Indian Alliance. And that's not to even mention the historic People's Climate March that brought more than 200,000 people into the streets of New York City this summer.

The movement to stop the Keystone pipeline has been at the epicenter of the climate justice movement for these past several years, and that has made it about more than the pipeline alone.

In the West, along the planned route for the pipeline, American Indian activists have used the fight against Keystone to demand treaty rights, sovereignty and reparations for the historical injustice brought on their community. Farmers and ranchers have joined them with actions to dramatize how the pipeline would threaten their livelihoods and all of ours. Students have been some of the most vocal opponents of Keystone--their futures are in jeopardy as climate change gets worse and worse.

After the House passed its authorization for the Keystone pipeline, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in western South Dakota announced it viewed the vote as an act of war. According to tribal President Cyril Scott:

The House has now signed our death warrants and the death warrants of our children and grandchildren. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe will not allow this pipeline through our lands...We are outraged at the lack of intergovernmental cooperation. We are a sovereign nation and we are not being treated as such. We will close our reservation borders to Keystone XL.

Even if Landrieu's bill fails in the Senate on Tuesday, there will be more attempts by Congress to ramp through the Keystone pipeline--as soon as January rolls around and the Republicans take charge in both houses of Congress. And Obama continues to lurch back and forth on whether he will say yes or no to Keystone. Let there be no mistake: The final decision rests mainly with Obama.

The climate justice movement clearly can't rely on Obama or the Democrats to stop "game over" for the planet. Now is the time to mobilize and prepare for the fight ahead by broadening our movement. Stopping the Keystone XL is important, but our struggle is ultimately a bigger one than a single pipeline--it is about winning a world that puts the planet and our livelihoods before profit.

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