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A Carbon Bomb Defused: Obama Rejects Keystone XL in Historic Win for Environmental Activism

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The environmental movement is celebrating one of its biggest victories to date: President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. After years of review and one of the most vocal grassroots campaigns this country has seen in decades, Obama announced Friday he will not allow Keystone on his watch. The pipeline would have sent 830,000 barrels of crude every day from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. The fight to block the pipeline saw activists chaining themselves to construction machinery along the pipeline’s route, hundreds getting arrested in acts of civil disobedience outside the White House, and hundreds of thousands taking part in the largest climate change march in history, the People’s Climate March, just over a year ago. We are joined by two guests deeply involved in the victorious fight to stop the Keystone XL: Clayton Thomas-Muller, a leading organizer and writer on environmental justice and indigenous rights in Canada, and Jane Kleeb, executive director of Bold Nebraska, a political advocacy group that emerged as one of Keystone XL’s chief opponents.

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Video squareStoryNov 03, 2015Have Protests Killed the Keystone XL? TransCanada Asks U.S. for Delay in Face of Likely Rejection
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The environmental movement is celebrating one of its biggest victories to date: President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. After years of review and one of the most vocal grassroots campaigns this country has seen in decades, Obama announced Friday he will not allow Keystone on his watch. The pipeline would have sent 830,000 barrels of crude every day from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Defenders called it a boost to the economy and a gateway to cheaper gas prices, while opponents warned of a devastating impact on the climate and the residents along its route.

In his remarks, President Obama initially appeared to cast himself in the middle of the argument, saying the issue has played a, quote, “overinflated role in our political discourse.” He rejected supporters’ view that Keystone XL would help the economy, but also opponents’ view that it would be a, quote, “express lane to climate disaster.” But then Obama showed which argument he is siding with. Challenging the claims of Keystone backers, Obama said Keystone would not bring economic growth, lower gas prices or increase energy security. Meanwhile, he did not directly refute opponents’ warnings Keystone would mean dangerous carbon emissions from the extraction of tar sands oil. And near the end of his remarks, Obama acknowledged approving Keystone would undermine the global effort to stop climate change.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change. And frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership. And that’s the biggest risk we face: not acting. Today we’re continuing to lead by example, because, ultimately, if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground, rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.

As long as I’m president of the United States, America is going to hold ourselves to the same high standards to which we hold the rest of the world. And three weeks from now, I look forward to joining my fellow world leaders in Paris, where we’ve got to come together around an ambitious framework to protect the one planet that we’ve got while we still can. If we want to prevent the worst effects of climate change before it’s too late, the time to act is now—not later, not some day; right here, right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Keystone backers have denounced Obama’s decision. In a statement, TransCanada, the company behind Keystone, said, quote, “Misplaced symbolism was chosen over merit and science.” Republican senator and presidential hopeful Marco Rubio said Obama, quote, “continues to prioritize the demands of radical environmentalists over America’s energy security.”

But the broad coalition that opposed the Keystone XL, including environmentalists, indigenous groups, farmers, ranchers, are hailing the culmination of a tireless seven-year campaign. The fight to block the pipeline saw activists chaining themselves to construction machinery along the pipeline’s route, hundreds getting arrested in acts of civil disobedience outside the White House, and hundreds of thousands taking part in the largest climate change march in history, the People’s Climate March here in New York just over a year ago.

For more, we’re joined by two guests deeply involved in the victorious fight to stop the Keystone XL. Clayton Thomas-Muller is a leading organizer and writer on environmental justice and indigenous rights in Canada. He’s the “Stop It at the Source” campaigner at 350.org and a member of the Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba, Canada. And Jane Kleeb is with us, executive director of Bold Nebraska, a political advocacy group that emerged as one of Keystone XL’s chief opponents.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jane, let’s begin with you on this side of the border. Explain how Bold Nebraska, since Nebraska, in the end, was a linchpin of why, for people to follow this, TransCanada asked to suspend their request for approval in the last days, because they were still trying to resolve where the pipeline would go through Nebraska—how Nebraska played this key final role in the rejection of Keystone XL?

JANE KLEEB: Well, you know, Nebraska, literally from day one, has been TransCanada’s Achilles’ heel. We have mounted not only a grassroots campaign of citizens concerned about the climate and water pollution, we mounted a very legal and specific challenge with landowners. And we were in the courts as well as fighting TransCanada on the ground. And so, this most specific—you know, this most latest move by TransCanada essentially was they wanted to avoid this very strong lawsuit that we’re currently in court with them, and still in court with them, even though the rejection happened. They wanted to avoid that court system and go through what’s called the Public Service Commission in our state to try to get their route somehow approved, which would have then paused the State Department’s report. So, we knew that that was a Hail Mary pass. They actually couldn’t even legally go through the Public Service Commission, so we knew it was just a PR political ploy. But in the end, President Obama really stood with citizens. We made our case directly to the president, and he actually listened. And that is not only a symbol of the strength of the grassroots movement, but it’s also the strength of President Obama.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you could talk about how you got involved, how the Nebraskans brought together ranchers, farmers, environmentalists—many people who might not have worked together in the past—over these last years?

JANE KLEEB: You know, I personally have never worked on an environmental issue before Keystone XL. I’m a mom of three girls and did a lot of political work on the youth vote and eating disorders, but environmental work was never on my radar. My husband’s family homestead is in the Sandhills, which is a really sacred part of our state, where this pipeline was threatening to go. We don’t have any pipelines in the Sandhills. It’s very fragile land out there and very fragile soil. And the Ogallala Aquifer is essentially directly on the surface in the Sandhills. And so, some environmental friends of mine actually called me and said, “Have you heard about this?” And I went to one of the first State Department hearings, before any group in Nebraska was advocating on behalf of farmers and ranchers or tribal nations. And the farmers and the ranchers already knew about tar sands. They knew about how risky it was for First Nations communities. They knew about the risks for water supply. And so I turned to one of my buddies and said, “We’ve got to organize this.” And I just started turning my political campaign skills onto now an environmental issue.

And obviously, I’ve always believed in climate change. I think a lot of farmers and ranchers, they see climate change right up and personal. But this Keystone XL became a very deeply personal issue for us. We were not only fighting to protect people’s property rights and their water, but we were also part of a much larger international campaign to not only protect land, you know, folks’ land and water across the border, but also to actually have an impact on climate change, one of the biggest issues facing our generation. And so, you know, this was a very proud moment, to have Nebraska matter, when everybody always calls us a flyover country, “You’re a red state,” all these other kind of adjectives they put on us. We proved them wrong. We actually proved that an unlikely alliance can stop these risky projects.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Clayton Thomas-Muller, we’re speaking to you in Ottawa, Canada. Talk about the role of First Nations in fighting Keystone XL, how long you’ve been doing this, how you organized.

CLAYTON THOMAS-MULLER: Absolutely. Well, first of all, you know, big shout out to President Obama for rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline and demonstrating true climate leadership. You know, the issue of the Keystone XL pipeline, and of course it being the fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet, the controversial Canadian tar sands, this issue of tar sands expansion, you know, has been an issue for decades here for front-line First Nations communities living with this huge development in the midst of their traditional territories. It has been a fundamental treaty rights issue, it has been a fundamental human rights issue, because of the direct impacts that people have been facing.

The Keystone XL campaign, of course, became the lightning rod of the U.S. environmental movement, due in large part to the organizing efforts of First Nations leadership, who traveled along the proposed right-of-way of the Keystone XL, talking to landowners, talking to Native American leadership, talking to municipalities all the way from Hardisty, Alberta, down to the Gulf Coast of Texas, and essentially, you know, building their case that we need to stop this pipeline because of the huge impacts that are taking place in Alberta in relationship to human rights, in relationship to water, and especially in relationship to climate change. And so, you know, this issue has been tremendous for local communities here in Canada, for communities all around the world being affected by climate change, especially indigenous communities. And so, for us, you know, this is a huge victory, and definitely a huge signal to our new prime minister here in Canada that, you know, real climate leadership means not building tar sands pipelines and not supporting the expansion of the Alberta tar sands.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month in Alberta, oil giant Shell abandons its plans for a massive tar sands mine, citing concerns there aren’t enough pipelines to transport the crude oil. This comes after Shell also canceled its plans to drill in the Arctic. The construction of major pipelines, like Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline and TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline, that would help move Alberta tar sands, have been allayed by massive resistance, especially by First Nations. In Ontario, Anishinaabe women disrupted one of TransCanada’s town hall meetings over the proposed pipeline in 2014.

PROTESTER 1: You guys are not welcome on Anishinaabe territory.

PROTESTER 2: That’s coming from the women.

PROTESTER 3: You’re not welcome here.

TRANSCANADA REPRESENTATIVE: OK, thank you. Listen, if we’re not going to be able to present information in a—

PROTESTER 4: Your information is lies.

TRANSCANADA REPRESENTATIVE: OK.

PROTESTER 4: Your information is lies. You’re raping Mother Earth. You’re poisoning our water. You’re not listening to the women. We’re talking about our grandchildren and future generations. What are you going to tell your grandchildren? And what are your grandchildren going to tell their children when there’s no water?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Anishinaabe women challenging TransCanada at a town hall meeting. Last month, Shell reported a loss of $7.4 billion for the third quarter of this year. That’s compared with a profit of $4.5 billion in the same quarter a year earlier. Can you talk, Clayton, about the significance of these actions?

CLAYTON THOMAS-MULLER: Absolutely. You know, I think that what this victory represents to the climate justice movement, to the indigenous rights movement, is it represents the incredible power of social movements here in North America, social movements that are rooted in a strong anticolonial narrative, that are intersectional in design. You know, I think that, for us, the fact that the people have moved the most powerful government in the United States to say no to Big Oil is a huge victory that sends a very clear message to our newly elected prime minister, Trudeau, here in Canada, that on the eve of the world’s biggest summit on climate change in Paris, that real climate leaders do not support investment into dirty energy sources like the Alberta tar sands. You know, so, for us, I think that oil companies like Shell that are operating in the tar sands, you know, are trying to use every resource available to them to try and get tar sands accessible to international markets. And social movements, including the Keystone XL movement, have been able to keep that resource landlocked in a way that has, like I said, contributed to defusing one of the largest carbon bombs on the planet that needs to stay in the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: Clayton—

CLAYTON THOMAS-MULLER: And so, for us here in Canada, you know, this victory is immense. There are other tar sands pipeline—

AMY GOODMAN: Clayton, now let me ask you something. President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL comes as activists have staged a major climate action in Canada, the pipeline’s source. Last week, demonstrators greeted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with a sit-in at his new Ottawa residence just after he was sworn in, the protest demanding action on stopping emissions and reversing the legacy of Trudeau’s predecessor.

We just lost Clayton Thomas-Muller, but we will continue to follow that protest, as well as going to Paris for the two-week U.N. climate summit. Democracy Now! will be broadcasting from there. I want to thank both our guests. Clayton Thomas-Muller, a leading organizer and writer on environmental issues, working with 350.org, he’s the “Stop It at the Source” campaigner there. He’s a member of the Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba, Canada. And thanks so much to Jane Kleeb with Bold Nebraska, speaking to us from her home state of Nebraska.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go past another border, or we go to another border. We’re going to San Diego, California. Stay with us.

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