One day in early September, some dozen Democratic activists showed up at the Washington state headquarters of Obama for America, the President’s re-election campaign organization in Seattle. They cornered the state director, Dustin Lambro, and called on the President to block TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would bring crude oil from the Alberta oil sands through the U.S. Midwest to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas, potentially doubling exports of oil sands crude to the U.S. “It’s not an issue I know much about,” Lambro said. So the activists gave him an earful.
“We want to get the message to President Obama,” said a bearded man in a baseball cap, “that if you want us to vote for you this time around, this is what you’ve got to do.” Added a woman: “If you want us to work for you, that’s more important. We all worked for you.” Said a grey-haired business owner: “I was a campaign donor for Obama. I raised money for him. I raised a lot of money for him. We can’t afford to have Barack Obama keep compromising on the issues and the values that endeared him to his faithful.” By the end of the encounter, Lambro offered: “I’ll call my boss in Chicago. She’ll relay the message to the senior leadership of the campaign.”
The scene, as captured on a YouTube video, is playing out all over the country as anti-pipeline advocates increasingly turn away from the official State Department-run permit process, and turn up the heat on Barack Obama’s political operation. They have been showing up at his speeches and fundraisers, and greet him with chants of “Yes We Can—Stop the Pipeline.” They bird-dog his top campaign manager, Jim Messina. And as a follow-up to the summer’s civil disobedience that saw some 1,200 activists arrested in front of the White House in August, they are planning demonstrations at Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago, and bigger operations at his state headquarters. Environmentalists also plan to remind the President of his environmental campaign promises on Nov. 6, one year before the election, by bringing 10,000 people to Washington to form a human ring around the White House.
“Keystone XL is the environmental test for the President between now and the election,” says Bill McKibben, a leading environmental organizer against the pipeline. “On this, we are more united than anything I can remember.”
Stephen Harper has said he is “confident” the $7-billion mega-project will go ahead. TransCanada CEO Russ Girling has said the project is “absolutely” going to happen. And certainly, the official presidential permit process that is being led by the State Department, with a decision due at the end of the year, has so far suggested that the pipeline is en route to approval. After a lengthy review, State issued a final environmental impact statement that environmental groups disagreed with. It concluded that the project would have no major environmental impacts in the U.S. as long as the company met certain conditions, and said that the pipeline would not cause greenhouse gas emissions to increase because, the State Department assumed, the oil sands would be developed regardless of whether the project went ahead.
But even as the State Department continues to hold additional public hearings along the pipeline route and in Washington, the activists are zeroing in on the President’s political calculus. “We’re not saying we won’t vote for him,” says Jane Kleeb, an anti-pipeline organizer in Nebraska. “What we are saying is we won’t donate money and we won’t volunteer to expand his base. Those are the things he needs to do to win. We will not work to re-elect Obama unless he does what he promised in his campaign—that he will make American energy independent and less reliant on oil.”
There is no doubt Obama is in a vulnerable spot. His support and enthusiasm among his followers has been faltering. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in September suggested that his base is growing disenchanted. The poll found that 69 per cent of liberals approve of his job as President, and only 47 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds approve—the first time this number has dropped below 50 per cent. This decline in support is particularly problematic for Obama, whose election depended on turning out many voters who had never voted or donated money before. “This is about the momentum and enthusiasm gap. On the right, there is a lot of enthusiasm about unseating the President. On the left, it’s very muted,” says Daniel Kessler, a spokesman for the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network. If Obama approves the pipeline, he says, “a lot of environmentalists are going to feel deflated.”
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