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Bill McKibben on Fight Against Keystone XL, Fossil Fuel Divestment and Obama’s Failures on Climate

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Hundreds of college students are expected to risk arrest on March 2 outside the White House to pressure President Obama to reject the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline project. Organizers of “XL Dissent” say they hope to stage one of the largest acts of civil disobedience against the pipeline to date. The Keystone XL would carry 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada to the Gulf Coast. In January, a long-awaited environmental impact statement from the State Department found the Keystone XL would do little to slow the expansion of Canada’s vast oil sands, and would not significantly exacerbate the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. The Washington Post later revealed the review was run by a dues-paying member of the American Petroleum Institute with close ties to the company behind the pipeline, TransCanada. As we enter the final steps in the Keystone XL decision, we are joined by Bill McKibben, co-founder and director of

McKibben describes how the effort to confront global warming is growing worldwide. “The one place where we’ve really been able to go on the offense is this divestment movement. It has now spread around the world. Oxford University published a study in October saying it was the fastest-growing such corporate campaign in history. Universities, colleges, churches, city and state governments, pension funds — all now starting with an exhilarating pace to cut their ties with fossil fuel industries. It is one place where there is some real hope.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Bill, you’ve mentioned a couple of times Keystone. Well, in January, a long-awaited environmental impact statement from the State Department found the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would do little to slow the expansion of Canada’s vast oil sands, and would not significantly exacerbate the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. Businessweek has reported that a subsidiary of ERM, the company behind the report, worked on the Alaska pipeline project, which is owned in part by TransCanada. And InsideClimate News has also reported that the company’s analysis of greenhouse gas emissions is based in part on estimates by the Jacobs Consultancy, which it describes as, quote, “a group that is owned by a big tar sands developer and that was hired by the Alberta government—which strongly favors the project.”

BILL McKIBBEN: Look, even with all the intellectual and systematic corruption in the State Department view of Keystone, that there’s now enough public scrutiny that the report itself couldn’t be completely bogus, and if one reads it, it makes it very clear that under—as they say, in a scenario where the world attempts to constrain carbon, Keystone would make a huge difference. The place where they say it makes no difference is if we’re making no effort to do anything about climate change and we’re just flooding the atmosphere with carbon from every direction. Then they say this little bit more from the Keystone pipeline won’t hurt that much. If we’re trying to do something about climate change, which theoretically all our governments are committed to doing, then it makes a very big deal. It’s the equivalent of adding six million new cars to the road.

It’s also—beyond its powerful, practical import at this point, it’s a really important and powerful moment of decision for the president and for the secretary of state. The biggest foreign policy failure of the first Obama administration was almost certainly the catastrophic Copenhagen climate conference, which ended in complete failure. They’re aiming for another one in Paris in 2015. For that to be more than just another round of empty promises, someone is actually going to have to say, “We’re going to leave some fossil fuel in the ground someplace,” because the reserves that we’ve already identified here and around the world have about five times the size we’d need to take the planet past the two-degree red line that our scientists and governments have laid out.

That’s why Keystone becomes—I think one of the reasons it’s become the biggest rallying point for the environmental movement in generations in this country, brought more people into the streets than anything else. Partly it’s the complete destruction of the boreal forest in Alberta. Partly it’s the danger of leaks and spills along the pipeline route. But largely it’s the understanding that even if that oil makes it safely to the refinery, it’s going to spill into the atmosphere in the form of carbon and help drive global warming yet again—that and the understanding that the president, by himself, without asking John Boehner, can stop this project cold should he choose to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about why you feel the Keystone XL is such a critical issue; why people are going to Washington in March and planning to get arrested once again; why a few years ago you went to the White House and over 1,200 people got arrested; for people who are not familiar with the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, why it matters so much?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, it’s 830,000 barrels a day in oil—of oil coming out of Canada and to the Gulf of Mexico to be exported abroad. That’s a lot. And it’s not just oil. It’s the dirtiest oil on the planet. Even the State Department report found that that oil is 10 to 17 percent more carbon-intensive than the other heavy crude that we burn. It’s disgusting stuff. It’s done disgusting things up north, as the native people who started this fight and are still at its core—as they’ve pointed out over and over again.

And it is a place where the U.S.—where the U.S. president can act unilaterally. Nobody is naive. They understand that the U.S. Congress is not going to do anything useful about climate change. That means the president has to do what he said he would do when he ran in 2008. He said, “It’s time to end to the tyranny of Big Oil.” In fact, so far, his administration has been very, very helpful to Big Oil on this continent and around the world. And this is a case where we need him to stand up.

For progressives, there’s one other not-so-small thing. There was a study last year showing that the Koch brothers might make as much as $100 billion in profit off this pipeline over its 40-year lifespan, $100 billion, even for the Koch brothers a lot of money. And one doesn’t have to guess very widely what some of that money—what political use it will be put to in this country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Bill, I want to turn to Cindy Schild, a senior manager of the American Petroleum Institute’s refining and oil sands program. She defended the pipeline on her—on our show earlier this month.

CINDY SCHILD: I mean, first of all, you know, we had the debate about whether it’s oil sands or tar sands, and quite simply, we’re producing oil and oil and gas products. We are not—there’s no tar being produced here, so that’s just a terminology depending what side of the fence you sit on.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Bill McKibben, your response?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, I don’t know. Geologists always called it tar sands. If you want to go up there and look at it, you’ll get some sense of what’s happening. Basically, what’s happening is that her industry is turning a vast swath of area into a functional equivalent of, for Tolkien fans, Mordor. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and I’ve seen some pretty bleak environmental disgraces around the world. And in the process, they are going to run up Canada’s carbon emissions about 38 percent between now and 2030, precisely at a time when everyone in the world knows that we need to be reducing carbon emissions. Canada has turned into or is turning into a kind of petro state under the Harper government. The same thing is happening in Australia. And in certain parts of this country, with the help of the federal government, the same thing is going on. We’re creating huge sacrifice zones and, in the process, creating huge, huge amounts of carbon pollution and huge amounts of wealth. And that wealth is being used to make sure that nothing ever changes politically.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill, I want to play part of President Obama’s comments in 2012, when he appeared in Cushing, Oklahoma, to announce his support for TransCanada to build the southern leg of its Keystone oil pipeline from Oklahoma to Texas.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some. So, we are drilling all over the place, right now. That’s not the challenge. That’s not the problem. In fact, the problem in a place like Cushing is that we’re actually producing so much oil and gas in places like North Dakota and Colorado, that we don’t have enough pipeline capacity to transport all of it to where it needs to go.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Bill McKibben, if you could respond to what President Obama said, and then talk about further what you said he could do unilaterally.

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, look, anybody who thinks that the president has been a foe of the fossil fuel industry should just listen to that speech over and over again. Forget the pleasant words in the State of the Union about climate change as the challenge of our time or whatever. That’s the real bottom-line speech and the one that will be remembered, I think, out of his administrations. And it came with a promise to expedite all the permits and things for the southern leg of the Keystone pipeline, which is already flowing and already making life worse for people in places like Port Arthur, Texas, already the victims of really egregious environmental injustice and racism.

The president could be doing plenty. He could be making it harder, not easier, for the oil industry. He could be not opening up the Arctic to oil drilling. He could be not opening up big swaths of offshore continental slope U.S. for oil drilling. He could close down, instead of continuing to open up more of, the Powder River Basin for coal mining. Here’s a really important one. These are all important, but the coal industry is trying to build a bunch of massive ports in the Pacific Northwest in order to export coal off to Asia, where it will do just as much damage, obviously, to the climate as if it was burned here. The federal government has not forced those companies to include the climate effects of those projects in their environmental assessments. All they’re looking at is narrow questions of what will happen very close to the ports themselves. The federal government could do that in a minute, and if they did, those ports would never be built.

So, the Obama administration has done a couple of useful things. They have to do with U.S. automobile mileage and with new controls on power plant pollution in the U.S. that’s causing us to burn less coal here a little bit, although our CO2 emissions climbed again last year. But it makes no difference whether we burn this stuff at home or abroad. The secondhand smoke from burning coal is exactly as dangerous to the climate as if we burned it here. So why we somehow think it’s OK to export this stuff abroad makes no sense to me. Our first task, second task, third task is to keep as much of it in the ground as humanly possible. It’s the only place that it’s safe.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bill, you mentioned this issue of what’s happening abroad. There’s a lot of attention focused here on the battles against expanded fracking and the XL pipeline, but the fossil fuel industry is busy at work around the globe trying to get pliant governments in other parts of the world, in Europe and in the Third World, to allow more fracking, to allow more exploitation of fossil fuel resources. Your sense of the ability of a progressive movement to stop this worldwide push?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, it’s a big challenge. is, I guess, the only group really that works only on the climate crisis around the world. And we work in pretty much every country except North Korea. There are brave people doing great stuff around the world. There are people sitting in at the moment to block access to proposed huge new coal mines in Australia, for instance. Our colleagues everywhere are doing that kind of work and the work of building out solar and wind wherever we can.

The one place where we’ve really been able to go on the offense is this divestment movement, and it has now spread around the world. Oxford University published a study in October saying it was the fastest-growing such corporate campaign in history. Universities, colleges, churches, city and state governments, pension funds—all now starting, with an accelerating pace, to cut their ties to the fossil fuel industry. It’s one place where there’s some real hope. And the hope comes, you know, most of all from the experience in South African apartheid a generation ago, where this was one of the key tactics. It was Desmond Tutu, one of the great leaders of that fight, who issued this call saying, if you could see what happened in Africa, from famine and from drought as climate change spreads, you’d know why we ask you to take up this tool again and try, try to weaken the political power of these oil giants. We can’t bankrupt Exxon, but we can begin to politically bankrupt them. And we have to. We can no longer solve this problem one light bulb at a time. I mean, hey, as Tutu pointed out, the entire continent of Africa only burns about 1 percent of the world’s fossil fuel. We need to understand that at its core, this is a structural and systemic problem, and it will be changed when we’re able to weaken the power of this industry and do rudimentary but powerful things, like put a price on carbon to reflect the incredible damage it’s doing in the atmosphere.

And the March 2nd civil disobedience in Washington, what are the plans for it?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, I’m not in charge here. These are students doing this themselves, XL Dissent. But I think the message that they’re coming to Washington to bring is, you know, Democrats, don’t take youth for granted, that they’re always going to vote for you. Young people voted for Barack Obama in record numbers. And in 2008, when they asked them what their lead issue was, it was climate change. They didn’t show up in 2010 to vote, because in the meantime, the Copenhagen conference had come and gone, and it was pretty clear that the Obama administration was not committed to doing much about climate change. We have to take stronger steps all the time to get the message across. This is the generational challenge of all time. These young people who will be in Washington, if we don’t get things under control soon, the prime of their lives will be spent on nothing but the reaction to endless disaster of the kind we see around the U.S. and around the world today.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, we want to thank you so much for being with us, director of His latest book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist . Again, you can go to our website at to read chapter one of the book. Also author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. And, Bill, best to your wife Sue, happy birthday to her.

BILL McKIBBEN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back from break, we go down to North Carolina to find out what ’s happened with this coal ash pit with Duke Energy. Stay with us.

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