Overwhelming odds, unexpected alliances and tough losses — how defeating Keystone XL built a bolder, savvier climate movement
When President Biden rescinded a crucial permit for the Keystone XL pipeline last week, it marked the culmination of one of the longest, highest-profile campaigns in the North American climate movement. The opposition to Keystone XL included large environmental organizations, grassroots climate activist networks, Nebraska farmers, Texas landowners, Indigenous rights groups and tribal governments. Few environmental campaigns have touched so many people over such large swaths of the continent.
The Keystone XL resistance was part of the ongoing opposition to the Canadian tar sands, one of the most carbon-intensive industrial projects on the planet. Yet, it came to symbolize something even bigger. Many activists saw stopping Keystone XL as a measure of success for the climate movement itself.
“Keystone XL isn’t just any project,” said longtime activist Matt Leonard, who coordinated several major protests against the pipeline. “Its defeat is a testament to what movement building and direct action can accomplish.”
A stroke of President Biden’s pen finally killed Keystone XL. But paving the way for this victory were countless battles at the grassroots level, where activists tested new tactics and organizing strategies that built a bolder, savvier climate movement. Some of the groups involved took radically different approaches to politics, leading to unexpected alliances and occasional bitter feuds. And there were losses — other major oil pipelines, including the southern leg of Keystone XL itself, were completed even as the fight over the more famous northern half dragged on.
Yet, resistance to the Keystone XL’s northern leg succeeded against overwhelming odds. While there is always a possibility it could be resurrected someday, chances of that happening anytime soon seem slim. Understanding how this victory happened — and what it means for the climate movement — requires examining how 10-plus years of tar sands resistance played out in far-flung parts of North America.
The frontlines of tar sands extraction
If the international movement against the tar sands has a birthplace, it is probably Minnesota — specifically, at the 2006 Protecting Mother Earth Summit, which was organized by the Indigenous Environmental Network, or IEN. There, three women from the Deranger clan of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Alberta approached IEN staff with a story about something horrific happening in their community.
“They told us about a project so large, so devastating that you had to see it to believe it,” IEN organizer Clayton Thomas-Muller wrote in a reflection. “They spoke of a wild west of sorts, one of the last bastions of Earth where big oil was ramping up.”
Fort Chipewyan’s mostly Indigenous population had watched in dismay as oil companies began mining a low-quality form of petroleum known as bitumen from the Athabasca tar sands deposit in their backyard. The operation required razing old-growth forest to reach the clay and sand underneath, then using toxic chemicals to separate the petroleum. Tar sands extraction consumes 3-4 barrels of water to produce a barrel of crude with a carbon footprint 15 percent higher than conventional oil. Lakes of leftover toxic mine tailings were leaking into local water supplies, causing cancer clusters in downstream villages.
The industry’s base of operations was to the south, in Fort McMurray, a town of 35,000 whose population more than doubled as workers streamed in to take advantage of temporary jobs. Oil field “man camps” became hotbeds for human sex trafficking, especially of Indigenous women. The situation was already dire when the Deranger women came to IEN seeking help.
IEN had a long history opposing extractive industries on Indigenous lands, and worked with Fort Chipewyan locals to develop a campaign against the tar sands centered around pressuring governments and financial institutions. Meanwhile, U.S. and Canadian environmental groups were waking up to what was happening. The tar sands made a mockery of Canada’s climate goals while threatening to flood the United States with exceptionally dirty oil sent through a network of new pipelines.
Over the next few years, dozens of groups on both sides of the border joined the fight that began with Indigenous organizers in Alberta. Along the way, the campaign to stop the tar sands helped reinvigorate a climate movement that had accepted defeat for too long.
Tar Sands Action
The tar sands industry’s expansion plans hinged on building a series of major pipelines to reach U.S. consumers. One, the Keystone pipeline, not to be confused with Keystone XL, won approval from the George W. Bush administration in 2008. Activists had little chance of stopping that project under an oil-friendly president but they hoped things would change when Barack Obama took office the following year.
The tar sands presented Obama with one of his first major climate tests — and the administration failed. Pipelines that cross the U.S.-Canadian border require a special permit issued by the State Department and approval by the president. In 2009, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton granted the permit for Enbridge’s Clipper tar sands pipeline, despite lobbying from environmental groups. The next major tar sands conduit was up for approval in 2011. Proposed by TransCanada (now TC Energy) to complement its older Keystone pipeline, Keystone XL would carry up to 800,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. Absent some dramatic new force in politics, Keystone XL would almost certainly be built.
The environmental movement had walked away from such daunting conflicts before. But climate groups had been looking for an opportunity to push Obama for bolder action. In June 2011, prominent voices including 350.org’s Bill McKibben, author Naomi Klein and Tom Goldtooth of IEN published an open invitation to a multiday protest intended to change the dynamics of the Keystone XL fight. Every day for two weeks, a few dozen to a couple hundred people would sit in front of the White House until they were arrested. Each day, a new group would be led away by police. The protest was calculated to make Obama finally act decisively on climate change by withholding Keystone XL’s permit — something he could do without help from Congress.
“You don’t often find perfect fights like that,” said Jamie Henn of 350.org, the group who spearheaded the Tar Sands Action. “Hitting on that specific ask of Obama, to show climate leadership by rejecting a pipeline he had full authority over, was a breakthrough for us.”
People began signing up online. On the first day of the Tar Sands Action, 70 protesters including McKibben marched to the White House and sat around a banner reading, “Climate Change is Not in Our National Interest: Stop the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline.”
The group anticipated they would be arrested, then brought to the police station and allowed to post bail. Instead, they were taken to jail and kept for two nights. “People protest at the White House all the time,” said Leonard, whom 350.org recruited to be the lead organizer for the Tar Sands Action. “But dozens of new people getting arrested every day — the police weren’t used to that. So they tried to deter us.”
Leonard and other organizers wondered what came next. Could the action continue, or would future waves of protesters be dissuaded? “The only thing we need is more company,” McKibben assured them when they placed a call to the jail. The protest went on.
Over the next couple days, the police gave up their strategy of intimidation as new waves of protesters arrived. “They released everyone after realizing we were going to flood their jails,” Leonard said. Soon, organizers were getting calls from the White House asking them to stop.
At a face-to-face meeting with McKibben, Henn, and other activists, Obama’s team explained it was politically impractical to deny a major pipeline permit. What else could they do to make the protests go away, they wanted to know? Nothing, the activists responded. They wanted Keystone XL stopped.
“The Tar Sands Action was just 50 or so people getting arrested at the White House each day,” Henn said. “This wasn’t the revolution. Yet we made Obama feel really pressured. We realized we needed to do this sort of thing more often.” By the end of the two weeks, 1,252 people had been arrested in what was then the U.S. climate movement’s largest act of civil disobedience. Obama pushed back the decision on Keystone XL’s cross-border permit to an indefinite future date. Perhaps the administration hoped protests would fade with time.
Meanwhile, Obama made one of his famous compromises: While continuing to review the section of Keystone XL that crossed into Canada, he would fast-track the southern leg between Cushing, Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast. Construction on this section began the following year.
In the woods of North Texas
One warm October day in 2012, Texan Maggie Gorry sat atop a 40-foot pole in the path of tractors clearing a path for Keystone XL. Other activists watched from platforms in nearby trees. The pipeline had encountered a human roadblock. It all started when a group of University of North Texas friends returned from the Tar Sands Action and began talking with local landowner David Daniel.
Daniel was one of many farmers and landowners along Keystone XL’s route whose land was to be condemned through eminent domain for the pipeline. He served as an official spokesperson for the Tar Sands Action. But when Obama allowed the southern leg of Keystone XL to go ahead, most large climate groups turned to the more winnable fight against the northern half. To some Texas activists, it felt like betrayal.
“Keystone XL was one project that ran all the way to the Gulf Coast,” said Cindy Spoon, a UNT student arrested on the second day of the Tar Sands Action. “But that became inconvenient for national groups and they stopped talking about it that way.”
Daniel had vowed to build a treehouse in the pipeline’s path, if necessary, to block construction on his land. Spoon and other UNT students offered to help. They drove out to Daniel’s property on weekends to build wooden platforms. Slowly, the idea of involving large numbers of people in a sustained protest called the Tar Sands Blockade took shape.
The “treehouse” expanded to multiple connected platforms high above the ground. “It was more like a tree village,” Spoon said. When TC Energy’s bulldozers arrived in September 2012, a group of activists ascended into the canopy. Protesters were prepared to block tree-felling equipment with their bodies, sometimes at great personal risk.
On one occasion, pipeline workers cut multiple trees attached to ropes supporting a structure on Daniel’s property where four activists sat high off the ground. In another incident, captured on video, an earthmover ripped a large tree from the earth as activist J.G. Genson approached to force it to stop working. Footage showed the operator repeatedly swing the tree toward and away from Genson, who sat down to show he didn’t intend to move. “It felt like he was aiming a loaded gun at me and would pull the trigger any second,” Genson said. He had to leap to safety when the machine dropped the trunk dangerously near him.
After more than a week, TC Energy made the legally dubious move of bringing its equipment outside the designated construction right-of-way to skirt around the tree village. Gorry’s vigil on the pole, which blockaders erected by night in the bulldozers’ new path, was part of a last-ditch effort to delay the company as long as possible.
Gorry stayed on the pole a full 48 hours. After she finally came down, protesters continued harrying TC Energy on its advance toward the coast, slowing but not ultimately stopping construction. Still, their efforts weren’t futile.
“We had four goals for the blockade,” Spoon said. They were: stop the pipeline, elevate the plight of landowners like Daniel, push the climate movement to embrace more escalated direct action, and legitimize resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure in Texas. They accomplished all but the first.
The Tar Sands Blockade was an early experiment with sustained direct action of a kind that later became common in the climate movement. Over the next few years, even larger acts of mass resistance to pipelines exploded across the continent. At the forefront were Indigenous people who had led the opposition to tar sands since the beginning.
Building Indigenous resistance
When Joye Braun heard about plans to build the original Keystone pipeline near her tribe’s ancestral homeland, she immediately saw it as a threat to her people.
Braun, who is Cheyenne River Sioux and grew up on the tribe’s South Dakota reservation, was dismayed when the Bush administration approved Keystone. She was living in Washington State at the time, but in 2010 moved back to the Cheyenne River Reservation where she joined the fight against the next piece of TC Energy’s pipeline network. An early version of the route for Keystone XL would have cut through the reservation, but TC altered its plans in the face of tribal opposition. More than once, tribal police escorted company vehicles off the reservation to enforce a policy barring it from their land.
“Once they realized we were serious about exercising our sovereignty, they rerouted to just south of our border,” Braun said. Keystone XL’s new path crossed the Cheyenne River less than half a mile outside the reservation — still close enough to threaten the tribe’s water supply in the event of an oil spill. Opposition remained fierce.
Braun volunteered with Owe Aku International Justice Project, an organization founded by Lakota activist Debra White Plume that defends Indigenous sovereignty and was instrumental in the Keystone XL fight. In 2013-2014, Owe Aku organized a series of nonviolent direct action trainings along the Keystone XL route, in anticipation of construction on the northern leg. The events included skills workshops, traditional teachings, and spiritual preparation for the fight ahead. “It was exhausting but uplifting,” Braun said. “We were coming together and finding our voice.”
White Plume was experienced with direct action, having joined the 1973 American Indian Movement occupation of Wounded Knee. She, Braun and other leaders knew their work was dangerous. For some Indigenous training participants, the idea of engaging in forceful protest took some getting used to. “We had been conditioned for so long not to do that sort of thing because it would draw attention to us,” Braun said. “We’d had to avoid conflict to survive as a people. But sometimes those tactics are necessary.” She watched as tribal elders prepared to thrust themselves into the spotlight protesting the pipeline. “It was both scary and liberating.”
The immediate threat from Keystone XL receded when, after years of indecision, Obama finally rejected the northern leg in November 2015. Never before had a U.S. president stopped a major piece of oil infrastructure due to climate concerns. However, Braun and others were soon taking direct action to stop a different project: the Dakota Access pipeline.
The proposed route for Dakota Access skirted the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which shares a border with the Cheyenne River Reservation to the south. Although not primarily a tar sands pipeline, Dakota Access connected to another center of fossil fuel expansion: North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields. It cut under the Missouri River, jeopardizing Standing Rock’s water supply.
“We got a call from Standing Rock asking for help,” Braun said. “I reached out to our Cheyenne River youth who’d been training for Keystone XL, and asked if they were ready to fight another pipeline? They said yes.”
Braun was among the first to arrive at Standing Rock in April 2016, as locals prepared to set up encampments in the pipeline’s path. Over the next few months, thousands of Indigenous people and non-Indigenous supporters from around the continent converged there for the largest protest of its kind in modern U.S. history. Police used chemical weapons, water cannons and attack dogs on protesters; Braun sustained permanent lung damage she attributes to the chemicals. However, the encampments also proved amazingly successful. In December 2016, the outgoing Obama administration reversed an Army Corps of Engineers permit for Dakota Access, stopping construction.
The victory was short-lived, as one of the new Trump administration’s first acts was to re-approve Dakota Access and invite TC Energy to re-submit its Keystone XL application. But Standing Rock showed how years of preparation to resist Keystone XL had galvanized a larger wave of opposition to oil. “Keystone XL taught us a lot about how to build alliances and fight pipelines,” Braun said. “We could use all that for other fights.”
A mass movement
In February 2013, an estimated 50,000 people converged on the National Mall for the Forward on Climate rally, one of the largest demonstrations against Keystone XL. In 2017, Nebraska ranchers installed solar panels in the pipeline’s path. There were protests and acts of civil disobedience against Keystone XL from coast to coast. Such a huge effort required a diverse coalition of activist groups, but relationships between them weren’t always without tension. “We definitely argued,” Braun said. “There were lots of tears. For example, we faced a lot of white privilege and racism dealing with our non-Native peers.”
Then there was the battle for the narrative around the pipeline’s southern leg. “The big NGOs portray the Keystone XL campaign as a complete victory won in D.C.,” Cindy Spoon said. “Their priorities were having big rallies and marches there, where grassroots people don’t have a lot of power, instead of having those same things along the pipeline route in Oklahoma or Texas.”
Yet, with all its internal disagreements and conflicts over very real systemic issues, the Keystone XL campaign helped energize a wider movement to stop pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure — from coal mines in Montana to fracking projects in New England. For organizers of some of the most iconic tar sands protests, this was a goal from the start. “Our hope was the Tar Sands Action would inspire people, capture their imaginations, and they’d take that inspiration back to climate fights in their communities,” Matt Leonard said.
Most significant of all was the Indigenous movement that united around Keystone XL and achieved its most visible expression at the Standing Rock encampments. From the Texas Trans-Pecos pipeline to the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana to the Line 3 tar sands pipeline in Minnesota, oil projects all over the U.S. faced Indigenous-led direct action campaigns in the years after Standing Rock.
All the while, climate activists and Indigenous groups kept one eye on Keystone XL. A May 2020 court ruling blocked TC Energy from building parts of the pipeline across streams. Even so, the company began work on other sections last year, when COVID-19 made large protests difficult to plan.
Groups like the Indigenous youth-led Cheyenne River Grassroots Collective sprang into action, despite challenges posed by the virus. On Nov. 21, Jasilyn Charger of the Cheyenne River Sioux was arrested after locking herself to a pump station along the pipeline route. It was a harbinger of the larger scale direct action to come if construction began in earnest. Organizations like 350.org stood by, ready to assist if and when Indigenous leaders put out the call for a Standing Rock-style mobilization.
Things never got to that point, though. On day one of his administration, President Biden rescinded Keystone XL’s permit, halting all work on the project.
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The fight against Keystone XL may be over for now, but for the movement that came together to stop it the work of pressuring the Biden administration has just begun. “We can’t back off,” Leonard said. “Biden is certainly not Trump, but he’s no climate justice champion. It’s going to take real grassroots pressure to move him on other issues.”
Besides stopping Keystone XL, Biden’s early climate actions include freezing new fossil fuel leases on public lands and restarting pollution regulations. But he has not overturned permits for other major pipelines, despite having options to do so. On Tuesday, a circuit court upheld a decision voiding the Army Corps of Engineers’ approval of Dakota Access. Biden could require that the pipeline shut down while the Corps writes a new environmental impact statement. He could also revoke the permit for Line 3, now under construction. “To be the climate president he claims to be, Biden needs to stop these pipelines as well,” Braun said.
Climate activists lost no time mobilizing in the administration’s early days. “We want to create a political atmosphere that says climate change is happening and we need to act,” said Shiva Rajbhandari of Extinction Rebellion Youth Boise, which organized an Inauguration Day banner drop at Idaho’s State Capitol. The following day, the youth-led Sunrise Movement held similar actions all over the country. “Biden and other Democrats could not have won without the huge block of Gen Z voters who care about climate,” Rajbhandari said. “Now we’re holding these politicians accountable.”
Also important is making sure Keystone XL never resurfaces. “I call it the zombie pipeline,” Braun said. “I believe this is the nail in the coffin, but we have to be vigilant. A future president could bring Keystone XL back unless we stop it permanently through legislation or the courts.” Groups like Indigenous Environmental Network are pursuing this long-term objective.
From organizing in communities on the frontlines of extraction to large national mobilizations to sustained direct action in places like Texas and the Cheyenne River Reservation, opposition to Keystone XL tested strategies climate groups will likely need in many other campaigns to come. The election of Joe Biden has opened the door to new opportunities — but it doesn’t mean activists can rest.
“I think Biden rightly realizes the climate movement has become a powerful force in politics,” Leonard said. “Keystone XL’s defeat is one of the most visible symbols of that. Now we need to push forward with more fights like it.”