Obama’s Keystone Decision: How Green Groups Got Their Way
By Neil Maghami, Green Watch, March 2012 (PDF available here: GW0312)
Summary: The U.S. economy is shaky and the Middle East is a powder keg. You’d think the Obama administration would want to quickly approve private sector plans to create thousands of jobs building a pipeline carrying oil from neighboring Canada. Too bad business and labor didn’t factor in the power of environmental groups. As soon as the greens protested, President Obama ended the deal.
Tax-exempt U.S. green groups and their private foundation backers are out to hamstring an energy development project of great importance to America’s prosperity and national security. The project, which taps into the oil sands of Canada’s Alberta province, holds the promise of producing as much as 173 billion barrels of crude oil. Many Americans don’t realize that Canada, not the Middle East, provides the largest share of U.S. oil imports, and the oil sands are slated to make up the bulk of Canada’s future oil production. But oil from Canada won’t reach U.S. refineries if environmental groups have their way. (See: American Greens Vs. Canadian Oil Producers: The War Over the Alberta Oil Sands, March 2011 GreenWatch.)
TransCanada, a Canadian energy company, wanted to construct a $7 billion pipeline project connecting the oil sands to refineries in Texas. The “Keystone Gulf Coast Expansion Pipeline Project,” or Keystone XL for short, would “create over seven million hours of labor and over 13,000 new jobs for American workers,” says TransCanada. In September 2010 a consortium of labor unions, including the Laborers, the Teamsters, the Plumbers and Pipefitters, and the Union of Operating Engineers, as well as the Pipeline Contractors Association signed a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) with TransCanada. The PLA sets up a collective bargaining agreement outlining the conditions of employment for a unionized workforce.
Everyone says we need to cut energy costs while reducing our dependence on foreign energy from dangerous and treacherous parts of the world like the Persian Gulf, Nigeria and Venezuela. The private sector is eager to build the pipeline, the unions’ demands have been met, and Canada is ready to exploit its vast natural resource using new technologies that extract oil from muck. So why has the project been held up?
On November 11, 2011, President Obama declared that a decision on whether to grant TransCanada a construction permit will be delayed until 2013—after the election. The news media reports that the Administration’s decision came after weeks of raucous environmentalist protests in and around the White House. More than 1,000 people (including Hollywood actress Daryl Hannah) were arrested. Even though Congress tried to force the President to reconsider his decision, on January 18 Obama reiterated his intention to delay the project pending “a full assessment on the pipeline’s impact.” That the State Department has had the Keystone proposal in hand since 2008, held twenty meetings on it, and produced a 1000 page assessment of its environmental impact was apparently insufficient.
TransCanada may be willing to change the pipeline’s route to assuage the President, but Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems much less patient. He has said that while Canadian energy from the oil sands can flow south to U.S. markets it can also flow east—to feed China’s energy hunger.
What convinced the President to block the Keystone XL pipeline? Who organized the protests near the White House, and who funded the organizers? These are questions this issue of Green Watch will answer.
Meet Bill McKibben
Why did Obama stall the Keystone pipeline project which will give Americans jobs by allowing us to import energy from a friendly non-threatening neighbor? The pipeline had the support of both business and Obama’s allies in organized labor. Yet green extremists got their way even though polls show the environmental movement is losing political influence. As author Amanda Carey noted in the January 2012 issue of “Green Watch,” the environmental movement is “out of gas and running on empty.” It has suffered major legislative defeats in Congress, global warming treaties have failed at the United Nations, and U.S. public opinion does not regard the environment as a major issue during the 2012 presidential campaign.
So why did the greens get their way? It’s true that nearly every major environmental group lined up to attack Keystone XL: the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace issued statements and open letters as did the National Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Earth, Rainforest Action Network, League of Conservation Voters, Environment America, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. But the usual tactics of the Washington, D.C. environmental establishment were not enough. Instead, a unique and perhaps indispensable contribution to the green victory was provided by an environmental activist named Bill McKibben.
Probably no one did more than McKibben to organize the demonstrations that killed the Keystone pipeline this year—and perhaps forever. McKibben was the catalyst for protest, throwing into the fight all the organizational lessons he’s learned.
A prolific author, McKibben’s ascent to green glory began when he published The End of Nature in 1989. An excerpt from a sympathetic book review by Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman says all that needs saying:
“McKibben makes clear, as few scientific tracts could, that doing nothing about the fossil fuels blanketing the Earth “will lead us, if not straight to hell, then straight to a place with a comparable temperature.” But he is more than skeptical about hi-tech solutions. Though it might be possible to survive in the greenhouse we are building by ever more technological measures, just as it is possible to save a condor or to replicate human reproduction in a petri dish, it isn’t possible to make nature. You can only let nature be.
In some ways that has been the moral message of the ecology movement. Limits. Restraints. We learned to stop using DDT and we are learning to do without chlorofluorocarbons, and we must stop releasing carbon dioxide. More profoundly, as McKibben writes, “Deep ecology suggests that instead of just giving better orders we learn to give fewer and fewer orders.”
A Harvard graduate and former staff writer at The New Yorker, McKibben (born 1960) has important friends in the world of high dollar elite philanthropy. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) is so enamored of him that it has a webpage (http://www.rbf.org/close-up/sustainable-markets-foundation ) lauding McKibben’s “call for a fundamental change in how human beings interact with the environment” given “the serious threat posed by global warming.” McKibben obsessively urges “the U.S. Congress to cut carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050,” notes Rockefeller’s website.
McKibben is no doubt disappointed that the U.S. Senate pulled the plug on a cap-and-trade law in 2010. But as an organizer of what the Rockefeller Brothers Fund website has called “the largest day of protest about global warming in U.S. history”—April 14, 2007—which inspired “1400 rallies and demonstrations in all 50 states,” McKibben is not about to give up.
In 2008 McKibben created “350.org,” a global grassroots movement to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to no more than 350 parts per million. Last year 350.org organized 2,000 events in 175 countries. It also merged with 1Sky, a U.S.-oriented activist group that also has Rockefeller links. McKibben has been on the board of both groups. He has called 350.org the Foreign Legion of 1Sky and 1Sky the State Department of 350.org. Some critics refer to 350.org and 1Sky as “RINGOs” – Rockefeller Initiative NGOs.
The Tactics of Modern Grassroots Organizing
“We’re going to organize the whole world on a budget of a million and half dollars…Without the Internet it’s not even possible to imagine doing this.” That’s how Bill McKibben overcomes corporate lobbyists, public relations firms, and labor union organizers.
Visit the 350.org website and you discover a steady stream of videos and blogs inviting the viewer to join the movement. McKibben-inspired interviews and news stories that appear on television broadcasts around the world are immediately posted on YouTube and put on the website.
The key to Internet-based organizing is immediacy. By using online videos for agitation and propaganda, leftwing organizers get their message out to their hard-core supporters quickly, while corporate lobbyists and union presidents are still waiting to order cocktails at lunch. (See “Brave New Films,” CRC’s Organization Trends, November 2011.) The Internet allows groups like McKibben’s to locate, cultivate and organize like-minded greens with email, blogs and videos at a far lower cost than traditional coalition-building methods.
During a two-week period in August-September 2011, McKibben mobilized thousands of radical greens to protest day after day outside the White House, producing video scenes of mass arrests that created a PR nightmare for the Obama Administration. With posters and chants, the demonstrators staged a sit-in just outside the White House gates. Declared actress Darryl Hannah, “We stand here today to say no to slavery, to just say no to tar sands, to just say no to Keystone.” McKibben himself spend two days in jail in August 2011 (complaining, after his release, that all he got to eat was a bologna sandwich).
Organized labor might have supposed that the Obama administration would not dare dismiss its demands that the pipeline’s construction go forward. But it did not count on the power of televised images to pressure a White House eager to curry favor with the environmental movement. As McKibben observed during a 2010 interview: “We need as a movement to get much stronger, and that means building a strong, unified progressive movement that can credibly threaten to reward or punish politicians, so that we can get somewhere.”
Organized Labor Goes Berserk
By killing the Keystone pipeline, President Obama gave a victory to the environmentalist Left, which has suffered so many defeats on the global warming issue. But he angered the unions that would build the pipeline—and whose support he is counting on in the forthcoming election. Consider these union reactions (reported by Matt Patterson and Vincent Vernuccio in the American Spectator online):
* “Politics at its worst… Once again the President has sided with environmentalists instead of blue collar construction workers,” said Terry O’Sullivan, head of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA). “Workers across the U.S. will not forget this.”
* “With a national unemployment rate in construction at 16 percent nationally, it is beyond disappointing that President Obama placed a higher priority on politics rather than our nation’s number one challenge: jobs,” said Mark H. Ayers, president of the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO.
* “A blow to America’s construction workers,” lamented James T. Callahan, president of the International Union of Operating Engineers.
LIUNA has pulled out of the so-called “Blue-Green Alliance,” a political coalition-building effort to link labor’s interests to environmental groups. Democrats hoped the promise of “green jobs” would keep the two groups working together. But Obama’s Keystone decision is fracturing the coalition. O’Sullivan, LIUNA’s president, says he is “repulsed by some of our supposed brothers and sisters lining up with job killers like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council to destroy the lives of working men and women.” Tough words.
McKibben and Obama: Peas in a Pod
“Bill McKibben is President Obama’s type of guy. They understand each other – one hard leftist to another,” says Myron Ebell, Director of the the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Energy and Environment. “This is a president who chose John Holdren for a science advisor, after all.” Holdren, like McKibben, is convinced that the earth is headed toward disaster. (See: “The Triumph of Environmental Alarmism: Science ‘Czar’ John Holdren and the Woods Hole Research Center,” GreenWatch November 2009.)
Ebell says McKibben has a knack for grabbing media attention, noting how in 2010 he presented Obama with a solar panel that President Carter installed on the White House roof—and President Reagan removed.
Ebell says the Keystone XL pipeline is a losing political issue for the Obama administration because it undermines the claim that the President wants shovel-ready construction projects:
“But then the green lobby forced their hand by surrounding the White House and demanding a stop to the Keystone pipeline – a project that is both shovel-ready and will help the economy. So now the left-leaning decision-makers look hypocritical and pandering to the greens.”
Following the Money
It’s hard to be sure exactly how Bill McKibben’s work is funded. During a friendly December 2010 interview (available at http://vimeo.com/17613444, starting at the 13:20 mark) he dared to say, “I don’t know.” When further pressed, McKibben acknowledged, “Rockefeller has been a great ally in this fight.”
The Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) appears to have provided substantial aid to McKibben’s work through pass-through grants made to the Sustainable Markets Foundation (SMF: 2010 revenue: $3.9 million). In 2011, RBF gave SMF $75,000 for “sustainable development” and “democratic practice” work. SMF previously received from RBF $130,000 in 2010, $375,000 in 2009, and $100,000 in 2008 for a “Project 350” initiative. A separate Rockefeller-aligned foundation, the Rockefeller Family Fund, gave Sustainable Markets $40,000 in 2008. SMF’s president, Elizabeth Hitchcock, is a long-time environmental activist affiliated with the US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) movement. Someone like Hitchcock probably feels an intense sympathy for McKibben, his cause and his hope to take his green legion towards ever-greater political influence, and didn’t need much convincing for SMF to take on its pass-through role.
1Sky, which merged with 350.org in 2011, also gets grants from the two Rockefeller philanthropies: $530,000 in 2009 and $900,000 in 2008 from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and $50,000 in 2008 from the Rockefeller Family Fund.
The Rockefeller Brothers Fund (2011 assets: $722 million) was founded in 1940. About half of its 16 trustees are members of the Rockefeller family, “including five from the fifth generation.” The Rockefeller Family Fund, created in 1967 (2009 assets: $89 million) is a grantmaking charity whose board also contains family members.
That radical environmentalists depend on Establishment coffers is no surprise. In his book The Green Wave: Environmentalism and Its Consequences (2006), published by Capital Research Center, author Bonner Cohen documents the many interlocking relationships between Old Money and Big Green.
The Real Green Agenda
Why have Senators Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Ben Nelson of Nebraska announced that they will not run for reelection? Writing in Politico (Jan 31, 2012), sociologist Joel Kotkin argues that it’s because Midwestern Democrats like them see the handwriting on the wall. The current Democratic party increasingly represents the “creative economy” of high technology and coastal cities and university towns. It ignores the “basic economy” of agriculture, manufacturing and fossil fuel energy. Even though Obama-era Democrats still want blue-collar union support, Kotkin points out that their sentiments and self-interest align them with constituency groups that are “divorced from the realities of production.”
“Who does Bill McKibben really represent?” asks Daniel Kish, senior vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research in Washington, DC. “He, his political friends and his funders are the creations of a rich society. What I mean is that, despite all their hand-wringing about excess energy use, he and they live very comfortably. He runs a well-funded non-profit group that alleges we should not build a cross-border pipeline; that says we should not develop our oil shale resources; and that believes, at a time when many Americans are having a hard time with heating bills and the cost of gasoline, that energy is unnecessarily cheap. But cheap, plentiful energy always has, and always will be, essential to economic growth and living standards.”
Kish continues: “McKibben’s group focuses on the so-called U.S. ‘carbon footprint,’ and sees the development of the oil sands as potentially spoiling its drive to shrink that footprint (hence their focus on that figure of 350 parts per million in carbon emissions). For McKibben & Co.’s vision to triumph, then Americans have to cut back on their energy consumption. But let’s think about it – in the global rankings, the higher the consumption of energy, the higher the standard of living. Who do you find at the bottom of the energy consumption rankings? Here are countries with smaller carbon footprints, but their people have a standard of living that no American (or anyone in an industrialized country) would envy.”
Kish warns that too few Americans understand the intentions of those who believe energy should be scarce and expensive to avoid damaging the earth. “Decision-makers need to hear what McKibben’s group is saying,” he adds, “and realize that, whatever else it claims to be for or against, this organization wants to limit access to cheap energy. This is the true inspiration for McKibben’s opposition to the oil sands.”
Dr. Thomas Borelli, a senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC., recalls the radical phrases candidate Obama used in 2008. “Obama said he favored ‘aggressive’ carbon-pricing schemes that would ‘bankrupt’ anyone who tried to set up new coal-fired energy plants by charging them ‘a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted’ from such plants.”
Political “Air Cover”
Borelli says it’s no surprise that “the President needs political ‘air cover,’ which McKibben and his activist groups provide.” By attracting media coverage, the sit-ins at the White House suggest there is widespread public support for rejecting the Keystone pipeline. In fact, a tiny but well-funded radical group disguises the lack of public support for a position the Administration is determined to take.
“I think what President Obama, McKibben and others do not appreciate is how grassroots, everyday people are looking at the opposition to the Keystone project and asking, ‘but why shouldn’t we buy oil from Canada, a friend and ally?’ I think the greens have not yet realized how people in the political middle and on the right have started to see the issue from this perspective. I can see the start of a shift in opinion underway – the louder the greens keep criticizing construction of the pipeline, the more they are building up a narrative that will come back to haunt them.”
However, Borelli sees little danger that Obama’s decision will create a permanent rift with the union movement. “Politically,” Borelli says, “where else do the unions have to go? I don’t see how his Keystone stance will translate into political consequences, as far as the unions are concerned. Let’s keep the eye on the bigger picture.”
The President has placated Big Labor with his recent appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. The loss of jobs because of his Keystone decision, says Borelli, “can be rationalized as necessary casualties in the larger political struggle.”
The Obama administration’s Keystone decision is dictated in part by this year’s presidential election. By siding with the environmental movement against the labor movement, President Obama is making a political calculation about who has the bigger battalions. But he is also making a more fundamental choice, one that reflects his vision of American society and its economy.
Neil Maghami is a freelance journalist and frequent contributor to Green Watch.