Monday, September 28, 2015

What’s next after Keystone? Fighting fossil fuel extraction on public lands

Earlier this month, in New York City, — the organization most associated with the campaign against Keystone XL — nearly filled the 2,090-seat opera house at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for headliners Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein to talk about climate change. That many people listening to a couple of nonfiction writers discuss an environmental problem is an impressive feat. The audience cheered loudly throughout and you could feel the political power in the room.

At one point, McKibben put on the screen above the stage a list of major sources of fossil fuels that must stay unreleased if we are to keep below 2 degrees Celsius of warming and avert the most catastrophic effects of climate change. Almost all of the examples, such as a massive coal deposit in Australia, were abroad. But there was one in the U.S.: federally owned deposits of oil, gas, and coal offshore and on public land.

You could say that was a hint about what will succeed the fight over Keystone as the next major grassroots anti–climate change effort: calling for a presidential ban on extracting fossil fuels offshore and on federal land. “The public lands stuff is emerging as a big focus for all of the groups,” says Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesperson for

Now that Hillary Clinton has announced her opposition to Keystone, the pipeline proposal that seemed like it would never go away now looks like it finally will. The pressure on President Obama to reject it has filtered upward from the climate activists to Obama’s own former secretary of state and his party’s likely nominee to succeed him. Obama is expected to announce his decision on the pipeline in a matter of weeks or months, and it’s widely believed that he’ll say no.

And so that raises a question: What is next? So much energy has gone into stopping this pipeline and so much activist capacity and awareness has been built up to fight it. Stopping the pipeline is only one small part of the larger agenda to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Climate scientists say that 80 percent of the world’s fossil fuels that are already held in reserve by fossil fuel companies cannot be burned if we are to stay below 2C. The Canadian tar sands that Keystone XL would have connected to U.S. pipelines are only one small part of that.

In fact, with the Keystone saga having dragged on longer than anyone expected, environmental groups have already begun their pivot toward focusing on public lands. They have formed the Keep It in the Ground coalition, which includes many of the same groups —, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club — that led the national fight against Keystone. It also includes groups working to protect individual areas such as the Arctic Ocean and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

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