01/18/2012 10:06 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2012

President Obama's Keystone XL Decision Swells Green Group Love To 'High Water Mark'

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's decision Wednesday to deny a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline gave environmental advocates the rarest of sensations: the feeling of victory.

After being left dejected when the administration scrapped smog regulations, dusted off nuclear power, and allowed expanded drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, Wednesday's Keystone decision allowed green groups to exult.

"I think this is the high water mark of the president's relationship with the environmental community," environmentalist Bill McKibben, a leader against the pipeline, said Wednesday evening. "The knock on the guy was that he was too conciliatory, and in this case, he stood down a bold political threat."

Obama, in affirming his State Department's recommendation to reject the pipeline, emphasized his decision does not preclude applications for similar projects. Cynics speculate the president will approve a minimally altered version of the pipeline after November's election. For now, though, McKibben said environmentalists are feeling optimistic.

"Conventional wisdom says that big oil is going to win," McKibben said. "But the conventional wisdom said the pipeline was going to get built. You never know. You've got to admit we've come farther than we thought we were going to come."

The savvy and passionate campaign against the Keystone XL, spearheaded by McKibben, has been remarkable in its political acumen and in its ability to inspire more than 12,000 people to gather outside the White House in protest of the pipeline one sunny November day.

In August, when the pipeline protests began outside the White House, few Americans had even heard of the Keystone XL, the $7 billion proposed oil pipeline that would stretch from tar sands in Canada to oil refineries along the Gulf Coast. Evidence of opponents' progress was on display Wednesday, in the president's rejection of the pipeline.

"We feel like this is a huge victory," said Liz Barratt-Brown, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a conversation Wednesday with The Huffington Post. "It really is. Given that this is a project that the oil industry put every ounce of their money lobbying effort into, in coordination with the Canadian government, it really is an amazing outcome. We'll see what happens now, but effectively Keystone XL as we've known it is dead."

"This is a great environmental victory, period," said Eddie Scher, a senior communications strategist with the Sierra Club. "If you go back two years, this thing was fast-tracked by everybody. No one was wondering what was going to happen and no one was paying attention to tar sands."

The win came even as environmentalists and their allies in Congress continued to nurse wounds over the State Department's protracted review of the pipeline, during which the opponents said they often felt ignored.

Many noted that the issue administration officials cited to justify blocking the project -- the need to study route alternatives through sensitive terrain in Nebraska -- was one they had battled for years.

Once Republicans in Congress attached a rider to last year's payroll tax bill requiring that a decision on Keystone XL be made within 60 days, the State Department announced it wouldn't have time to complete the studies.

"We made a decision on November 10th that we needed additional information regarding this project, specifically about alternative routes through Nebraska," said Assistant Secretary Kerri-Ann Jones during a phone briefing with reporters Wednesday. "And we base this decision now on the fact that we don't have time to get that information, information we think is essential for making a well-informed decision."

The State Department narrative of events, as described by several administration officials and in a formal report to Congress, focuses on a turning point at public meetings in the fall of 2011, after a final evaluation of the pipeline's environmental impact.

It was "during this period," the report to Congress says, that officials became aware of public concerns over the pipeline's routing through the sensitive Sand Hills of Nebraska.

As The Huffington Post previously reported, concerns had been raised earlier about a route through the Sand Hills by other government agencies that had reviewed the State Department's original environmental study in 2010.

Indeed, it was this concern that helped contribute to the State Department's decision to issue a draft supplemental environmental impact study a year later, and to hold a rare second public comment period.

"TransCanada had its preferred route and then it provided State with four other routes," Anthony Swift of the National Resource Defense Council, said last year, referring to the Canadian oil company that stood to profit from the project. "They were all longer than they needed to be, and State basically looked at them and said, 'These are all longer.'"

Despite misgivings about the process, activists and congressional staffers who battled with the State Department for months over the contentious pipeline analysis expressed satisfaction on Wednesday.

"I think that they made the right decision to take a step back," said a staffer who tangled with State over its environmental studies. "They had realized how controversial the project was, and they made the decision to do the process more thoroughly than they had initially done."

"It took a huge outpouring of concern by the American public, saying we want hearings, an open public process," said NRDC's Barratt-Brown. "And in the end they really did do it."

State Department officials pointed to the increased attention and resources the agency invested in the project in the heated months of last summer, including dispatching large teams of senior officials to every state along the route to personally meet with aggrieved lawmakers and residents.

Nevertheless, Wednesday's decision still took some close observers by surprise.

"I really thought this decision would be delayed longer," a second congressional staffer told HuffPost.

"The president's statement is not based on the concerns about climate change -- it's not the type of statement we would write," the staffer said. "But at the same time, we've got to look at the substance of the action. [The White House] understood that the environmental community had said, 'You've got to go to the mat here.' It was a values moment for progressives. And they listened."

Environmentalists said they're taking it a step at a time.

"The reality is any pipeline proposal that is made will meet similar scrutiny," said NRDC's Barratt-Brown. "It's a huge blow. We know that today is one day."

Sierra Club's Scher acknowledged that Wednesday's decision isn't a "permanent kill."

"Nothing that could have happened would have done that, our systems don't work that way," Scher said. "Who knows what the future will bring, but somebody's going to have to propose a project and raise the money and make it happen, and the American people are going to have to weigh in on whether they want the thing or not.

"Hundreds of thousands of people have spoken up against the Keystone XL," Scher said, "and those people don't just go off into the night. They're around, they're watching."