By November 11, 2015 Read More →

The real meaning behind Obama’s rejection of Keystone XL

Keystone XL

American President Barack Obama

White House decision about Keystone XL not about data, economics, or climate change

Supporters of the Canadian oil sands on both sides of the border are in a flap after President Barack Obama denied a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline proposal from TransCanada Corp. Most of them, unfortunately, have missed the significance of the decision.

One writer who didn’t is David Roberts, writing in Vox. He rightly understands that the fight over Keystone XL isn’t about greenhouse gas emissions or “dirty oil” or even climate change, for that matter.

This is perhaps the most important thing critics miss: all the ongoing climate activist campaigns — divestment, the “thin green line” fighting fossil fuel exports in the Pacific Northwest, the “stranded assets” push in the financial world, the whole “keep it in the ground” movement that’s gathering steam, the #ExxonKnew investigations — are ultimately aimed at the same goal. They seek to remove the social license enjoyed by fossil fuel companies (emphasis added).

Roberts argues that transitioning to a decarbonized economy of renewable energy and electric cars requires not just new technology. It also requires consumers – and voters – to think differently.

Lest you think Roberts is an outlier, here is Scott Parkin, a climate organizer working with Rising Tide North America, writing in

Revoke the social and political license of carbon intensive industries to operate in the political economy…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.

This is a perceptive insight into what the environmental movement is really up to. Every skirmish on social media, every protest march, every legal challenge, are all part of the larger battle to de-legitimize fossil fuels.

The battle is not about data or science or economics. But fossil fuel supporters didn’t get the memo.

As a journalist, I regularly interview people in the energy industry, everyone from field workers to CEOs. Almost without exception, none of them understand Roberts’ point. Ask them about climate change and they respond with a laundry list of fossil fuel benefits and reasons why coal, oil, and natural gas should be held in high esteem, not vilified.

Meanwhile, eco-activists are changing hearts and minds – removing social license for fossil fuels – one protest, one petition, one blog post at a time.

Including the heart and mind of President Obama. And, judging by Hillary Clinton’s recent criticism of Keystone XL and her proposal for a North American Climate Pact, those of the presumptive heir to the Democratic nomination.

When Obama remarked during his Keystone XL announcement that “if we’re gonna prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re gonna have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky,” he was echoing Roberts and Parkin and Bill McKibben and Greenpeace and the Sierra Club.

And that is the real meaning of the Keystone XL decision: Climate activists have destroyed fossil fuels’ social license in the highest office of the land.

Supporters of the Alberta oil sands and the American fossil fuel industries may soon have much more to worry about than a doomed pipeline proposal.

Posted in: Markham on Energy

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