Democrats’ Climate Journey, from Keystone to Pittsburgh

Source: White House (2009)

The past decade has been quite a climate journey for Democrats.

President Biden travels to Pittsburgh today to unveil key infrastructure pillars of his Build Back Better agenda, including proposals to grow America’s clean energy industry and create clean energy jobs.

Ten years prior, on March 31, 2011, I sat at the witness table for the first-ever congressional hearing on the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline. It was an obscure issue at the time, far removed from the symbolism that defines it today.

My ringside scorecard was dire: President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton were preparing to green-light the permits needed for the Keystone pipeline.

Oil prices had just soared past $100 per barrel on the heels of the Arab Spring and civil war in Libya. The day before the hearing, President Obama delivered a speech at Georgetown.

Imported oil “will remain an important part of our energy portfolio for quite some time,” he said. “Obviously we’ve got to look at neighbors like Canada and Mexico that are stable and steady and reliable sources.”

Obama’s remarks were similar to comments that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had made when asked about the KXL pipeline:

“We’ve not yet signed off on it, but we are inclined to do so… — we’re either going to be dependent on dirty oil from the Gulf or dirty oil from Canada.”

If it is hard to imagine Obama’s and Clinton’s comments today, it only underscores how far things have shifted in the Democrat Party in the last decade. At no time was that shift as visible and swift as the turnabout on KXL.

Two years later, in the summer of 2013, on a sweltering humid day, President Obama returned to Georgetown to deliver a different speech, announcing historic initiatives to tackle climate change. He had a point to make on Keystone:

“The pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.”

This was the Keystone moment. A first-ever reckoning of the previously-siloed climate agenda with the bread-and-butter expediting of energy infrastructure projects that only added to the climate problem.

In the years since Democrats have largely united against the pipeline. Two months ago, President Biden pulled the KXL permit on day one of his presidency. Last month, 48 of the Senate’s 50 Democrats voted against a Republican measure in support of the pipeline.

This is not the story of what made that change happened. That is an incredible saga with many heroes. Many of them live in First Nations in Canada and have suffered twice — first from the scars of cancer and polluted water in their communities, and second from the persecution of powerful energy interests for speaking up. Others led fights along the pipeline route, fighting for their water, their land, their rights. Some chained themselves to the White House fence, an escalation to peaceful, civil disobedience that had a powerful impact on a young president and stands in stark contrast to more recent scenes of terror at the capitol.

This is just my bit of the tale. As Senior Vice President at National Wildlife Federation, I had been to Alberta and talked to First Nations. I knew the stakes. The Keystone pipeline was going to supercharge investment in the dirtiest, most toxic oil on earth for decades.

Here, I thought, it all comes together. Justice. Climate. Action. If we can’t stop this, can we change anything?

What happened in the hearing room in 2011 probably mattered little, but it didn’t feel that way for me that day, as the sole opponent of the pipeline.

We weren’t just an underdog heading into the marble halls of Congress. In March 2011, few people even knew that there was a fight brewing.

As the hearing droned on, one congressman after another spoke of the importance of the project. Chairman Connie Mack, a Republican, said the pipeline was needed “to help boost the ailing economy, and secure an additional 500,000 barrels of oil per day into U.S. refineries in Oklahoma and Texas.”

Democrat Albio Sires piled on: “I was concerned, I must admit, at first about the environmental impact but, quite frankly, I am confident that this is something that is good for Canada and it is good for the United States.”

All the witnesses on the panel spoke in favor of the pipeline.

I came last. This fight at its heart was always about justice for those taking a stand against the unbridled power of energy companies and politicians. The marbled floors, wood-paneled walls and vaulted ceiling were the heart of that power. But it was also a world I knew. It was the piece I could add to the puzzle. And so I did.

“As much as we may wish otherwise,” I said, “there are no quick fixes by switching suppliers of our oil imports from one country to another and turning to extreme oil such as Canadian tar sands. There is only one way out. We need to get serious about the innovation in our transportation and fuel sectors that will create jobs here at home and provide Americans a healthier, cleaner, and more secure energy future.”

“I have been there,” I testified, as I showed pictures of the destruction on a screen. “I have seen the damage. I have listened to courageous people who have suffered as they have stood up to big oil and the oil companies up in Alberta.”

“In Alberta, I met with First Nation communities and listened as they told the heartbreaking story of how cancer rates have increased as the tar sands operations have expanded. One elder told me that they pull their kids indoors whenever the air gets too noxious.”

The questions from members of Congress started coming. I persisted.

“Buying into a 50-year pipeline for oil that is three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventional oil makes a mockery of the efforts that we all are pursuing to reduce our own emissions and pursue clean energy here at home.”

But, surely, said one member, what Canada does in producing the oil is Canada’s business, not ours.

“I think you can apply the same commonsense test here as raising your own kids,” I replied. “If your kid said, ‘Well, yeah. I participate in this but someone else actually is the one that did it. I encouraged them to do it,’ we wouldn’t say, ’Oh, that’s okay then.’’’

“We are part of this, too, and we have a say in this.”

Concluding the hearing, Chairman Mack, the fiercest proponent of the pipeline, addressed me. “Even though you might have felt outnumbered, you held your own, he said.” But no minds were changed. “I don’t agree, as you can imagine,” he finished.

There are some that minimize the Keystone fight in the evolution of climate politics. Some roll their eyes and think the Keystone fight wasn’t worth the fuss. I think otherwise. I have no doubt that this fight was an immensely powerful political awakening of a new generation of climate leaders who witnessed the change they made happen in the world.

It wasn’t just the fate of a pipeline that shifted, but a larger reckoning between the climate, justice, and energy agenda of a political party. For anyone who, like me, celebrates the cut of President Biden’s cloth on justice, climate and jobs, it would be difficult if not arrogant to simultaneously deem the threads of the Keystone fight to be irrelevant.

But those threads were not all positive. Defenders of the status quo have avidly exploited the Keystone fight to drive a wedge between environmentalists and workers.

The only way to solve climate change is by building a future that creates good-paying jobs with good benefits. Over the past decade, the growing partnership between blue and green has been an incredibly important evolution of the climate movement — in terms of both our combined agenda and our combined political power within the Democratic party.

Fortunately, we have a president ready to lead us forward on that shared path of what we can build together.

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