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Because tar sands oil emits four times the carbon dioxide as standard crude, renowned climate scientist James Hanson has declared that if the Canadian tar sands were fully developed, it would be “essentially game over for the climate.” Seeking to draw a line in the (tar) sands, activists successfully organized to delay, and possibly stop, TransCanada’s plans to build the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried 800,000 barrels a day of tar sands oil to Texas refineries. As of this writing it is unclear if the project will re-emerge in another form, but the movement is girding to defeat any attempted resurrection.
Indigenous communities in northern Alberta, Canada, have been organizing to stop tar sands expansion for decades, and while many U.S. environmental groups began to join the fight around 2007, they had a hard time popularizing the issue in the United States. This changed in June 2011, when a group of prominent authors, scientists, Indigenous leaders, and activists, spearheaded by Bill McKibben, released a joint letter calling on climate activists to participate in two weeks of daily nonviolent direct action at the White House in Washington, D.C.
The action quickly became a rallying point for activists working on climate change issues. From August 20 to September 3, 1,253 farmers, teachers, mothers, scientists, celebrities, Indigenous elders, faith leaders and students were arrested outside the White House, garnering international media attention and galvanizing the environmental movement’s opposition to the pipeline.
Because building the Keystone XL pipeline required a Presidential Permit to go ahead, organizers chose to target President Obama as the focus of the action see PRINCIPLE: Choose your target wisely, see THEORY: Points of intervention. Activists were clear to distinguish between Obama as the target and TransCanada as the enemy. This distinction yielded a tone that was assertive but friendly. Even as the campaign interrupted his public speeches, flooded campaign offices and staged mass arrests, the emphasis was always on Obama’s campaign promises to “end the tyranny of oil” and slow the rise of the oceans. By repeating his own words back to him, activists framed the issue in such a way that Obama had both a serious liability and a huge opportunity on his hands: he could side with the people, or with the polluters.
Of all the tactics employed on the campaign, Obama officials said they were rattled most by “bird-doging” interruptions at high-priced fundraisers because these actions eroded the confidence of Obama’s key financial backers. Even in disruptive actions, the message was always inviting, remixing Obama’s own messaging: “President Obama, Yes You Can Stop the Keystone XL Pipeline.” The goal was to emphasize the political risks of alienating his environmentalist and climate-conscious base. This risk was further amplified by protests around the world, including a mass arrestable sit-in at the Canadian parliament.
Building on this momentum, a second invitation to action was issued, this time for thousands of people to surround the White House on November 6, one year before the next presidential election. This event brought 12,000 people to Obama’s front door and showcased a wide segment of the environmental movement, from Indigenous leaders to Nebraska ranchers to college students. Four days later, President Obama sent the pipeline back for a full 18-month re-review. In response, Republicans in Congress legislatively forced an accelerated timeline for approval, which led to the president choosing to outright deny the rushed permit. This was a definitive victory against the pipeline, and while TransCanada can still reapply — forcing us to fight the battle again, it reminds us that most environmental victories are temporary on their own, and require continued organizing and pressure (alongside systemic change) to remain durable.
The tar sands action effectively used Obama’s own words and supporters against him, framing the issue around the political risk Obama would be taking if he approved the pipeline. Photos from the August action accompanied a huge majority of the stories written or broadcast about the pipeline. The arrests demonstrated the depth of opposition to the pipeline, with dispersed actions across the country showing the breadth of opposition. In addition, some of the actions — at Obama 2012 campaign offices and fundraising events — posed an immediate threat of disrupting Obama’s political machinery while continuing to raise the profile of the issue.
One thousand two hundred and fifty three arrests over two weeks generated a drumbeat of news stories, trained and empowered a dedicated core of activists, and provided the visual and narrative campaign hook for the months to come. The sit-ins set a fire underneath the environmental movement.
By simply using Barack Obama’s own words as organizing slogans, the Tar Sands Action vividly spotlighted his shortcomings on environmental issues, re-activating a core of volunteers and supporters from 2008. The campaign positively affirmed his hopeful statements, holding out the promise of the same support from environmentalists he enjoyed in 2008 if he were able to live up to those words in his response to the pipeline.
This action would not have worked a year earlier. The tactics and message were suited to their moment and context. Obama’s environmentalist base was disillusioned with his failure to live up to his promises, social movements were riding a global wave of revolutions, and Occupy Wall Street was just taking off and giving popular voice to the efficacy of mass protest. The sit-ins were highly choreographed and made as “safe” as possible. While to some they may have appeared insufficiently “hardcore,” they effectively gave passive allies an entry point into action, identifying the key social blocs in need of shifting. The vast majority of participants in the tar sands action indicated it was their first protest experience, let alone their first direct action. This was paired with a grassroots-led organizing strategy that emphasized local autonomy within a clear framework. Each stage of the campaign was designed for participants to take themselves to the next level.
During the August sit-ins, organizers extensively documented both the actions and participants. Photos from the event were made freely available online and became a key part of news stories about the pipeline for months to come. Also, every participant had a personal photo taken at a photo booth at the action training, giving everyone something to share and remember from the action.
In a fight over fossil fuel infrastructure, there is a tendency to jump immediately to physical blockade tactics. By proactively setting the tone with disciplined arrestable actions, the campaign successfully focused energy from different segments of the environmental movement. The sit-ins held the promise of escalated actions, but maintained a tone that discouraged runaway escalation.