12/16/2011 05:04 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2012

What Does the Keystone Pipeline Have to Do With the Biggest Brands in the World?

Just a few months ago, few would have guessed that Big Oil would be licking its wounds in the wake of what can only be described as a devastating defeat on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Yes, President Obama punted, giving the Keystone pipeline a delay instead of a denial. But the message to Big Oil was clear: the days of rubber-stamping new oil projects are over.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared in September that Keystone's approval was a "no-brainer." Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated that Keystone was essentially a done deal -- before any environmental review was even completed. Victory for Big Oil and the 1 percent was not all but guaranteed, it was guaranteed.

Not so fast: The fight that erupted was so fierce that many are still just trying to take stock -- Republican ranchers from Nebraska and 70s throwbacks from Berkeley issuing the same rallying cry against Big Oil, non-profits of all types strategizing and providing behind-the-scenes support to escalating civil disobedience at the White House, and college kids from everywhere rising up to demand their own better future.

To observers with any distance from this fight, the controversy was mainly about a pipeline and less about the particularly destructive source of the oil flowing through it from Canada's Tar Sands. But for most of the U.S. public, this was the first time they heard about the Tar Sands. They need to hear a lot more -- and that's the key to winning on Keystone and more importantly, on the larger Tar Sands problem. It's time to mainstream this controversy.

All that toxic oil from the Tar Sands is made into gas, diesel and other petro-products whose largest market by far is the United States. And some of the biggest customers for that fuel are Fortune 500 companies. What if they refused to use Tar Sands-based fuels? Would that elevate the conversation about this issue in the U.S.? Would President Obama feel politically safer making the right call on Keystone in 2013 and join them in rejecting the Tar Sands? Of course.

The good news is that's already happening. Long before President Obama took a stand on Keystone and its dirty Tar Sands oil, some of the largest companies in the world had already made that call. ForestEthics has been moving Fortune 500 companies as disparate as Trader Joe's and Walgreens away from using Tar Sands gas and diesel to ship their products and fuel their fleets. But the press attention and conversation about the shifting marketplace has been largely isolated to Canada. That needs to change and it's starting to with a big move this week by another major U.S. company.

Chiquita Bananas -- not exactly a green brand -- has adopted one of the strongest and most far-reaching policies to ensure that its bananas, which have some serious mileage on them by the time they arrive in your local store, are not shipped to market with Tar Sands-based fuels.

As we say at ForestEthics, the customer is always right. If the biggest fuel and shipping customers in the world keep shifting away from Tar Sands-based fuels, its fate is sealed. That would mean that the Keystone pipeline is not only not welcome in the U.S., it is not needed because demand is shrinking and shifting toward more efficient, sensible sources.

We all know we need to start weaning the world off regular oil -- and that's the strange opportunity that the Tar Sands presents: it can work like a "gateway" drug but in reverse -- as a fuel source it is so bad that companies want to get as far away from it as possible. Who wants to be associated with poisoning downstream First Nations, forest destruction, water pollution, climate chaos, etc. In our experience this is the first time Fortune 500 companies are actively grappling with fuel choices instead of just efficiency issues. Does a "No Tar Sands" policy lead to conversations about using less oil/gas/diesel? Using more natural gas vehicles? Greater use of hybrids? Electrification of fleets? Yes. In a funny way, the worst can lead to the best. But only if we have major brands in this conversation on a daily basis with a constant drumbeat of new "No Tar Sands" policies.

As major U.S. companies publicly walk away from toxic Tar Sands fuel, not only does demand decrease, but social stigma is magnified. Think PETA and fur coats, or BPA and plastics. Nobody wants to be associated with a stigmatized product, and that's exactly what's happening with Tar Sands fuel. That trend must accelerate dramatically and we have now proven that tracking this fuel and moving companies away from it is possible. We can take that approach to a much larger scale.

Which brings me back to the Keystone Pipeline: If, in 2013, Obama does what 50, 100 or 200 of the largest companies on the planet have already done -- say "No" to Toxic Tar Sands oil -- we can start handing Big Oil its first permanent defeat. And Keystone is not the only Tar Sands pipeline -- First Nations on the coast of British Columbia have already enacted oil tanker bans using traditional law to prevent the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. The battle over that issue is already heating up and will make Keystone look like a relatively mild skirmish.

Indigenous people, ordinary citizens and major U.S. companies are all saying "No" to the Tar Sands and Big Oil. On the other side of that "No" lies an even more powerful "Yes." A "Yes" to intact ancient cultures staying that way, to old growth forests remaining pristine, to clean drinking water for all of us, to wild places remaining safe for the magnificent creatures that inhabit them. As the tide turns towards a greener future and away from outdated and dangerous fuels, like Tar Sands, we may finally arrive at the moment, in President Obama's words, "when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."