Keystone Decision Shows Strength of Grassroots Organizing

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Last Friday, President Barack Obama finally put an end to the question of whether his administration would approve construction of the now infamous Keystone XL pipeline. After seven long years of battle between supporters and opponents across the country – from the halls of Congress to the cornfields of Nebraska – the decision came and the answer was no.

While somewhat anticlimactic because it was widely anticipated, the decision on Keystone would likely have come as a shock to anyone paying attention when the approval process began in 2008. After all, it was a big infrastructure project with bipartisan support, favored by our largest trading partner and backed by the most powerful interests in the energy industry. But around 2011, reeling from recent legislative defeats, the environmental movement made opposition to the pipeline their bête noir and determined to organize a national grassroots campaign to ensure Keystone would never be built.

Insofar as one can and should partly attribute Keystone’s defeat to these efforts (even contrarians begrudgingly acknowledge the influence of organizers), their tactics provide an illustrative guide to the key facets of a successful grassroots campaign.

Building a Coalition

A critical part of the effort was assembling a diverse coalition. While spearheaded by environmentalists, and nominally led by Bill McKibben’s 350.org, activists quickly allied and organized with key stakeholders along the pipeline route who could be negatively impacted by the pipeline’s construction, bringing in the likes of farmers and cattle ranchers, Native American tribes and “Not In My Backyard” advocates. Those non-traditional allies combined with more recognizable cohorts such as college students, public interest groups and Occupy Wall Street protesters to form a strong coalition.

Effective Targeting

Organizers targeted the right people and did so with unyielding pressure. Instead of expending quantities of energy picketing prominent pipeline supporters, activists more often directed their attention where it mattered, sometimes highly visible and sometimes not. They mastered the legal labyrinths of eminent domain in the Nebraska judicial system while relentlessly pursuing President Obama through public protests and civil disobedience, straight through the 2012 elections and often to the consternation of lecturing liberal allies.

Attracting the Media

Activists learned how to master media attention. Sometimes that meant high-profile stunts, like mass rallies where prominent figures such as former NASA scientist James Hansen and Sierra Club Director Michael Brune were among hundreds arrested for chaining themselves to the White House fence. Other times, the focus turned to more subtle David and Goliath media profiles on the lone mid-western cattle rancher who was trying to save his farm from intrusive infrastructure laid down by an obtrusive Canadian corporation.

The relentlessness of organizers and diversity of tactics, from refusing to let up on now-candidate Hillary Clinton to using judicial appeals to ensure the re-routing of the proposed route, helped drag out the process while winning allies and wearing down opponents. While the grassroots campaign was not the sole reason for Keystone’s defeat, it undoubtedly raised the profile of the issue to the public consciousness and ignited strong passions for what may have otherwise been an inconspicuous addition to the US’ cross-continental maze of existing pipelines. What advocates on both sides of the issue learned was that media savvy, unrelenting focus and unyielding grassroots efforts can be an unexpected game-changer where the outcome may have otherwise been ordained.

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Keystone Decision Shows Strength of Grassroots Organizing

iStock_000018340442_Large

Last Friday, President Barack Obama finally put an end to the question of whether his administration would approve construction of the now infamous Keystone XL pipeline. After seven long years of battle between supporters and opponents across the country – from the halls of Congress to the cornfields of Nebraska – the decision came and the answer was no.
While somewhat anticlimactic because it was widely anticipated, the decision on Keystone would likely have come as a shock to anyone paying attention when the approval process began in 2008. After all, it was a big infrastructure project with bipartisan support, favored by our largest trading partner and backed by the most powerful interests in the energy industry. But around 2011, reeling …

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