Now that Hillary Clinton has come out against the Keystone XL pipeline, pressure is mounting on the White House to kill the project or risk undermining President Obama’s delicate, high-profile efforts to forge a global response to climate change.
The proposed $6 billion steel straw would double the flow of oil from Canada’s tar sands to U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast. It would also tip the earth toward catastrophic global warming, activists say, and for that reason they’ve fought the project for more than a half-decade, growing increasingly frustrated with the tortured decision-making of former Secretary Clinton and President Obama.
But on Tuesday, Clinton at last took a stand against the pipeline, calling it “a distraction” and not “in the best interest of what we need to do to combat climate change.” That left Obama to take fire all alone.
“If Hillary Clinton can go from being ‘inclined to approve’ Keystone XL to ‘I oppose’ in five years, then surely Barack Obama can go from more than six years of indecision to outright rejection,” said Elijah Zarlin, the director of climate campaigns at CREDO, an online progressive group with more than 3 million members. “As someone who says he is committed to action on climate, it is long past time for President Obama to reject Keystone XL.”
The White House has said that Clinton’s decision would not influence its own, a position it reiterated to msnbc Tuesday evening. All Tuesday afternoon and evening, however, calls poured in from advocacy groups hoping to use Clinton’s rejection to prod President Obama.
“Now, as the opposition to Keystone XL mounts, the decision [to reject the pipeline] remains with the President,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune. “He has all the evidence he needs to do just that and reject Keystone XL once and for all.”
Erich Pica, the president of Friends of the Earth Action, which has endorsed Clinton challenger Bernie Sanders, called the former secretary of state’s opposition “an important about-face.”
“Now is the time for President Obama to reject the pipeline outright,” Pica added.
No group helped put Keystone on the political map more than 350.org, founded by former journalist Bill McKibben. He turned what could have been a pro-forma permitting decision into a grand fight for the future of the planet, driven by his concept of “global warming’s terrifying math.” It comes down to three figures: 2 degrees Celsius, 565 gigatons, and 2,795 gigatons.
The first figure is the rise in global temperature that scientists consider to be safe. The second is the amount of carbon humans can pour into the atmosphere by mid-century and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. The third is the amount of carbon already in reserves around the world—an amount that is at least three times more than we can safely burn.
The takeaway for activists is the need to block virtually every new fossil fuel project, a stand that began with the Keystone XL pipeline. May Boeve, who replaced McKibben as executive director of 350.org, said the Clinton news was “a huge win for our movement, and ups the pressure even more on President Obama to reject the Keystone pipeline once and for all.”
“President Obama has all the information he needs: It’s time to end this, and reject Keystone XL for good,” Boeve added.
Clinton alerted the White House that she would be coming out against the pipeline before she made the announcement, according to a Clinton aide, but the opposition could strain relations between the campaign and the administration. It comes on the eve of Pope Francis’ historic address to Congress, which is expected to focus on climate change, and less than 100 days before world leaders gather in Paris in December to discuss limiting the emissions that cause global warming.
Obama has rallied strong support for an agreement, building a legacy as the first president to seriously attempt to address climate change. But Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer, who funds the environmental activist group NextGenClimate, said Clinton’s opposition means that Obama will have to do more.
“In a clear example of people power overcoming the special interests, Hillary Clinton joined with thousands of Americans calling on President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline in favor of building an American economy powered by clean energy,” Styer said. “I urge President Obama to decisively reject the Keystone XL pipeline once and for all.”
For a while, deference to the White House was a useful out for the Clinton campaign. Before the politics of the Keystone pipeline were clear, the candidate didn’t need to take a clear position. But once that stance became a weight, not a tool, Clinton broke with her former boss.
The former secretary of state made it clear Tuesday that she was only speaking out now because she, too, had become frustrated by the pace of the administration's approval process. “I thought this would be decided by now,” she said. “But it hasn’t been decided, and I feel now I’ve got a responsibility to you and other voters who ask me about this.”