WASHINGTON — Environmentalists have spent the past two years fighting the Keystone XL pipeline: They have built a human chain around the White House, clogged the State Department’s public comment system with more than a million emails and letters, and gotten themselves arrested at protests across the country.
But as bad as they argue the 1,700-mile pipeline would be for the planet, Keystone XL has been a boon to the environmental movement. While it remains unclear whether President Obama will approve the project, both sides agree that the fight has changed American environmental politics.
“I think it would be naïve for any energy infrastructure company to think that this would be a flash in the pan,” said Alexander J. Pourbaix, president of energy and oil pipelines at TransCanada, the company that has been trying to get a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline since 2008.
Environmentalists want to stop the transport of 800,000 barrels a day of heavy crude from oil sands formations in Canada to Texas refineries, and an oil extraction process that emits more greenhouse gases than other forms of production. Proponents of the Keystone XL project say that the oil will come out of the ground with or without a new pipeline and that other methods of transport, like rail, cause more pollution. They point out that TransCanada began operations on Wednesday on a southern pipeline segment that connects to existing pipelines to provide a route from Alberta to the Gulf Coast.
The project has raised the profile of activists like Bill McKibben, a former writer for The New Yorker and founder of 350.org, an organization that focuses on climate change. Jeff Swensen for The New York Times
Although some critics say the environmental movement has made a strategic error by focusing so much energy on the pipeline, no one disputes that the issue has helped a new breed of environmental organizations build a mostly young army eager to donate money and time. The seven-year-old email list of 350.org, an organization that focuses on climate change, has more than doubled to 530,000 people since the group began fighting the pipeline in August 2011. In addition, about 76,000 people have signed a “pledge of resistance” sponsored by seven liberal advocacy groups in which they promise to risk arrest in civil disobedience if a State Department analysis, expected this year, points toward approval of the pipeline.
The Keystone XL project has also raised the profile of a diverse generation of environmental leaders, like the activist Bill McKibben, a former writer for The New Yorker and founder of 350.org, and the billionaire venture capitalist Thomas F. Steyer, who is estimated to have contributed at least $1 million to the movement and has starred in four 90-second ads opposing the pipeline. Not least, it has united national and local environmental groups that usually fight for attention and resources.
“Over the last 18 months, I think there was this recognition that stopping the pipeline is, in fact, important,” said Ross Hammond, a senior campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “But it has also brought a huge number of people into the movement.”
That movement, Mr. McKibben said in an interview, “looks the way we want the energy system to look: not a few big power plants, but a million solar panels all tied together.”
A sign was planted last March in a field in Nebraska. Nati Harnik/Associated Press
Politically, the draw of Keystone XL comes from its physical presence. It is far easier, environmental activists say, to rally people around something as vivid as a pipeline bisecting the United States than, say, around cap-and-trade legislation that would have forced industry to pay a price for its carbon emissions. The legislation failed in Congress in 2009.
“When we’re able to focus on distinct, concrete projects, we tend to win,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “And when we tend to focus on more obscure policies or places where we need action from Congress, we tend to stall, like every other thing tends to stall.”
The pipeline has been a particular hit with small donors, especially as environmental organizations turn more to protests, fund-raisers said. Last year, the Sierra Club raised $1 million in six weeks for a major rally in Washington. About $100,000 of that came from contributions of less than $1,000.
“This is not one of our usual long-term campaigns,” said Jackie Brown, the Sierra Club’s chief advancement officer. “This was an emerging upswelling of support.”
A portion of the Keystone XL pipeline under construction in North Dakota. TransCanada, via Reuters
Wealthier donors are also opening their wallets. Betsy Taylor, a longtime environmental fund-raiser, said her network of contributors was increasingly supporting the more aggressive campaigns run by groups like 350.org and Bold Nebraska, a shift away from the environmental research and policy organizations that have traditionally drawn such contributions.
Keystone XL — the XL stands for express line — would be a shortcut to the Gulf of Mexico as well as an extension of TransCanada’s existing Keystone pipeline, which runs from Alberta to Nebraska, with small branches to Illinois and Oklahoma. Keystone XL would be a far more direct route across the United States. Keystone consists of a three-foot-diameter pipe that is three feet underground. Keystone XL would also be three feet in diameter, but four feet underground.
Initially, opposition to Keystone XL consisted of scattered people and groups along the proposed route of the pipeline, including indigenous tribes in Alberta. The fight went national in June 2011 when James E. Hansen, a former NASA climate scientist, wrote an open letter calling the pipeline “game over for the climate” and urged people to write to Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the secretary of state. (Because the project crosses an international boundary, it is subject to approval by the State Department.)
Mr. McKibben, the author of numerous books about climate, decided to use 350.org to campaign against the pipeline. That fall, he urged his members to commit civil disobedience in front of the White House.
Activists including Michael Brune, right, of the Sierra Club, and the civil rights leader Julian Bond, second from right, tied themselves to a White House gate to protest the Keystone XL. Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press
“I remember when I heard the call for civil disobedience, I thought, ‘Yeah, right, you’ll get like 40 people to show up,’ ” said Mr. Hammond of Friends of the Earth. “And then, bam!” Over a two-week period, about 1,200 people were arrested at the White House.
Stephanie Kimball, 30, a Wisconsin dentist, said in a recent telephone interview that she had been “trying to figure out where to jump in” to the environmental cause when a talk by activists arrested in 2011 inspired her to volunteer as a local coordinator for 350.org. She said she was also working to stop a pipeline by the Canadian corporation Enbridge.
To counter the campaign, TransCanada has had to run television and radio ads to promote the jobs that the pipeline could provide. Industry allies like the American Petroleum Institute have also been running ads.
If Mr. Obama approves the Keystone XL pipeline, Mr. Brune of the Sierra Club said, it will be “the Vietnam of his presidency.” But, he added, environmentalists’ efforts will hardly have been for nothing.
“If you lose on this,” said Mike Casey, a consultant on a number of environmental efforts, including Mr. Steyer’s, “this infrastructure doesn’t go away. It remains deployable and passionate.”