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Keystone: What We Know

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Ever since the Keystone fight began, the smart money has insisted the pipeline will be approved. But so far: no pipe.

And the opposition got a serious boost this week, when Republicans in the House of Representatives forced a vote on a symbolic measure approving KXL. It passed, of course -- every Republican voted for it, and they control the lower chamber. But they found only 19 Democrats to go along with them, 40 less than a year before. As one commentator noted in the aftermath, "the little campaign that could" was still chugging along -- and with a greater head of steam than before.

At this point, the national fight over Keystone is closing in on two years old. There's one big thing we still don't know -- but there are lots of things we've figured out over that stretch of time:

1) Environmentalists won't walk away from a fight. Plenty of people predicted that when the president delayed the decision for a year, till after the 2012 election, passions would cool; instead, Keystone opponents mounted the first big demonstration of the second Obama term, ten days after the vote, and the largest rally yet, when 50,000 people thronged the mall in February.

2) The green movement is more unified than many imagined. For months, Washington "insiders" have been announcing that the administration would try to 'trade' Keystone for some other environmentalist wish -- maybe a restriction on coal-fired power plants. But all the leaders of national environmental groups have kept up the pressure; none have bent.

3)The environmental movement really is a movement, not just a collection of organizations. The Keystone fight began with the indigenous communities at the source and along the route; it's been fought most bravely by farmers and ranchers in difficult terrain in Texas. But the men and women inside the Beltway have battled with vigor too: this week's vote went well precisely because the National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council and the League of Conservation Voters have skilled and tenacious staff.

4) The more resistance, the more people rally to the fight. After the first spate of arrests in the summer of 2011, 10 Nobel Peace Prize winners released a letter condemning the project. This past week it was 150 clerics, including influential evangelicals. Scientists have done likewise -- as sometimes happens, the unearned suffering of peaceful protesters has moved others to action.

5) The number of people willing to resist keeps growing and diversifying. This winter the arrestees included leaders from the civil rights movement, like Julian Bond, and the Democratic mainstream, like Robert Kennedy Jr. And now the activist group CREDO has worked with others to signup 60,000 people pledged to civil disobedience if the administration does the wrong thing.

6) Gradually, the silliness of the arguments for the pipeline has begun to erode their credibility. It's possible that somewhere in America someone believes the American Petroleum Institute statement this week that approval of KXL would lower gas prices this summer, but it's hard to imagine quite who. By now most people know that the project's jobs have been routinely overstated, and that the oil is destined to be shipped abroad.

7) And gradually the horror of climate change is convincing more and more people what folly it would be to hook us up to a project that guarantees decades more of fossil fuel use. Since we started, the U.S. has seen the hottest year in its history, an epic Midwest drought, the largest forest fires in southwest history, and oh yeah a hurricane that filled the New York subway system with the Atlantic ocean.

8) One more thing -- since it's entirely clear that stopping Keystone by itself won't solve the climate crisis, the green movement has shown it can go on offense too. Charged up in part by the KXL battle, student groups around the nation have launched a full-scale campaign for divestment from fossil fuels that has spread to over 300 campuses and inspired city governments from Seattle to San Francisco to explore selling their stocks.

There's still that one thing we don't know, however, and that's what Barack Obama will do. Congress isn't going to take this decision off his hands; a shoddy State Department environmental study, which even his own EPA rejects, won't be much help. The decision will be the president's. If he blocks Keystone then he's got himself a climate legacy as well as a bargaining chip -- he'd be the first world leader to block a big project because of its effect on the climate. If he doesn't -- well, no beautiful speech on the dangers of climate change will convince anyone.

It was two years ago that the National Journal polled its 300 "energy insiders" and 91 percent of them predicted a quick approval for the project. Since then we've kept half a billion barrels of the dirtiest oil on earth in the ground. The smart money still says we're going to lose, but it's not quite as sure: the Canadian business press is reporting this week that no one wants to buy tarsand leases or finance new projects -- prospects for the future have become "uncertain." And it's not just Keystone -- analysts said earlier this spring that in the wake of the KXL battle it's likely every new pipeline will face a battle. Tarsands barons like the Koch brothers still have all the money, and they've still got the odds in their favor. But the smart money has lost a few IQ points.

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