When We Fight, We F*** Shit Up: Keystone XL and Delegitimizing Fossil Fuels

posted by scott parkin

cross-posted from Counterpunch

“At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behavior.”

– Edward Abbey


Near the sprawling Dallas suburb of Garland, TX where I grew up are the east Texas piney woods that are now home to the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. In the blistering summer heat of 2012, I traveled there in support of the coalition of local Texas and Oklahoma landowners and radical environmentalists known as the Tar Sands Blockade that fought to stop the southern leg of the pipeline. A year before, Keystone XL had become a household name when over 1200 people participated in two weeks of sit-ins at the White House demanding that Barack Obama reject the pipeline.

A few months after the White House sit-ins, Obama fast-tracked the permit for the southern leg with the stroke of a pen. Canadian Oil giant TransCanada quickly began construction on the pipeline in over a dozen locations between Cushing, OK and refineries on the Gulf Coast.

Obama’s permitting of the southern leg led to a fierce grassroots direct action campaign by the Tar Sands Blockade and its allies. Besides blockades, sit-ins, legal protests and home demonstrations, they launched an 85 day tree-sit directly in the way of the pipeline’s route. TransCanada and local authorities responded with violence, escalated charges and civil litigation. TransCanada hired off-duty police to serve as private security. They used pepper-spray, Tasers and brute force against peaceful protestors putting their bodies in the way of the construction.  According to TransCanada’s lawsuit against participants, the campaign by January 2013 had cost them over $5 million.

Today, oil flows through the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. It was a loss.

On Friday after announcement of Obama rejecting the northern leg came out, the Tar Sands Blockade stated: “The “victory comes at a huge cost. Here in Texas and Oklahoma, we lost on KXL. For almost two years now KXL has been pumping roughly 400,000 barrels per day of tar sands direct from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, bringing toxic emissions and daily insecurity to countless families across our region. Today is not a step forward; it’s more like slowing the rate of moving backwards.”

But the precedent of fierce resistance set by frontline communities and grassroots direct action rabble-rousers has been critical to the defeat of the northern leg and the flowering of other grassroots campaigns against the fossil fuel industry.

As Gulf Coast organizer Cherri Foytlin acknowledged, we need “to recognize the leaders in the Southern Leg struggle, because I believe that without that strong and courageous, grass roots, people power, showing of resistance, the denial in the North would have been so much more difficult, maybe out of reach.”

The White House sit-ins in 2011, and then the Tar Sands Blockade in 2012, escalated the campaign against Keystone XL. The climate movement picked a fight that politicians, pundits and lobbyists scoffed at. As veteran environmental campaigner Casey Harrell recently remarked, “It’s not just or primarily about how much impact this one decision has on overall oil production numbers. It’s that the climate justice movement picked a fight – a fight that most people ridiculed and said could never, ever be victorious — and that movement won.

Around the continent, tapping into the “currency of moods” through days of action, disruptions at events featuring American and Canadian politicians, constant digital and media communications, vigils, protests, civil disobediences and a massive Pledge of Resistance changed the story from Big Oil’s inevitability to “when we fight, we win.” For now, it has taken Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton from “inclined to approve” to “I oppose it.” Oil companies have been put on the defensive and dozens of other campaigns against oil and gas projects have been emboldened across the continent.  And finally, it led to a rejection of TransCanada’s permit by Barack Obama. We organized and put pressure on him and changed the story.

Important ongoing lessons moving forward for the climate justice movement are:

  • Revoke the social and political license of carbon intensive industries to operate in the political economy. In the fall of 2013, members of Rising Tide North America penned in “The Climate Movement’s Pipeline Preoccupation,” “we are up against the world’s largest corporations, who are attempting to extract, transport and burn fossil fuels at an unprecedented rate, all as the climate crisis spins out of control.” Big Oil and Big Coal own the U.S. political system and are major players in every sector of the economy. Furthermore, fossil fuel inevitability is a part our culture. We need to change that cultural assumption by revoking the social and political power of industry. Aggressive campaigns targeting companies, CEOs, pro-industry pundits and thought-leaders is the key.
  • Make militant direct action the organizing strategy, not just a tool in the toolbox. The non-profit industrial complex describes direct action as a “tool in the toolbox.” Movements around the world use confrontational action as strategy, not just as a tactic. Militant movements in Serbia ousted Milosevic, in Bolivia booted out Bechtel, and in Seattle shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) and sent it into a tailspin. Militant direct action is a strategy we use to build real movements, change power dynamics, shift societies and even remove governments. In the Keystone XL campaigns, direct action groups in Texas, Oklahoma and in locales across the continent waged sustained direct action campaigns against the pipeline. It created a crisis in the business as usual models of oil companies and politicians. It works. It gets the goods.
  • Build a diverse climate justice movement. The Tar Sands Blockade brought together conservative landowners and radical environmental groups like Rising Tide and Earth First!. They worked in solidarity with Latino communities on the eastside of Houston that neighbored the refineries where the Keystone XL ended. The campaign against the northern leg worked with a diverse coalition that included Indigenous communities in South Dakota and Montana, ranchers in Nebraska, students, scientists, families along the pipeline route and white middle class environmentalists from all over the country.  While there was often disagreement in putting together such a diverse set of voices, there was one unifying message: NO KXL.
  • The Democratic Party is not our friend. Despite the accolades and “thank you” cards for President Obama on Friday, he was far from friendly on the issue. He approved the southern leg as quickly as possible. The administration would have signed off on the northern leg except our interventions stopped him. Obama’s organizing arm, Organizing for America, hit the streets with talking points, media outreach and mass communications to deflect criticism. Finally, Obama’s police state, the Federal Bureau of Investigation surveilled, infiltrated and harassed anti-Keystone activists from the Pacific Northwest to the Gulf Coast to New England. We are not on the same side. They are not our friends.

Fight capitalism and corporate power. A systemic critique of the existing economic system is required to delegitimize fossil fuels. Groups like Flood Wall Street, Rising Tide North America, and the Climate Justice Alliance, that have their roots in anti-globalization, anti-austerity and Occupy movements, all have incorporated this critiques into their visions for a better world.  “Like corporate globalization, climate and related ecological crisis affects everyone, everywhere, so gives us an amazing opportunity to organize across the many things that keep us divided and ruled” reflected street organizer David Solnit last year. “The challenge is to define the climate crisis deeply in a way that understands that it is rooted in an economic and political system that is hardwired to be anti-democratic and exploit the earth and people for profit.”

But beyond Keystone XL, the brushfire rebellion against climate change and fossil fuels extraction continues with ferocity.

Just this month:

  • In New England, Fighting against Natural Gas (FANG) in Rhode Island, Capitalism vs. Climate Change in Connecticut and a coalition of group in Massachusetts have been fighting to stop Spectra’s pipeline build out in their region. Dozens of arrests have already occurred. This week, Spectra went as far to bill three FANG activists $30,000 for economic damages associated with a non-violent protest. As co-founder of Earth First! and Rainforest Action Network Mike Roselle said “first they ignore you, then they sue you.”
  • In Cascadia, activists in Eugene, Portland and other parts of the state have stepped up their opposition to a liquefied natural gas pipeline cutting through Oregon. 
  • At Cove Point, MD on Chesapeake Bay, the area’s fracked gas export terminal remains a firestorm of opposition and resistance. This week at Monday Night Football in Charlotte, NC, anti-fracking activists hung a banner off of the upper deck at Bank of America stadium in protest of the bank’s financing of the projects lead company, Dominion Resources.

We’re racing against time. Big Oil and King Coal are waging war on our planet and its people without mercy and without quarter. These corporate megalomaniacs are holding back our future, and now it’s time our movement of climate justice and direct action organizers to rise up, fight back and fuck up their business as usual.