It's been almost exactly six years since the opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline went national, with climate scientists and environmental activists joining Native Americans and Nebraska ranchers who'd begun the battle against transporting tar sands from Alberta, Canada, to the Texas Gulf Coast. The fight tipped into victory in late 2015 when President Obama and his State Department rejected the pipeline on the grounds it didn't advance U.S. interests. Last week, President Trump reversed that decision. It was his most specific climate move so far, though the executive order issued this week — essentially an attempt to end government action on climate change — will doubtless yield more such rulings down the road.
In between pretending to drive a big truck and losing on healthcare, Trump, signed a permit Friday giving TransCanada Corp. the right to cross the American border with its pipe. As he showed off the order (against the now-familiar backdrop of many white guys in ties), he turned to the company's CEO and said, "When does construction start?"
The answer is, no time soon.
The immediate problem for Trump and TransCanada is that there's no approved route for the pipeline through Nebraska, where organizers and citizens are hunkering down again for spirited resistance. Dozens of landowners along the route are refusing to let their land be taken, and the state's public utility commission hasn't granted a permit.
The deeper problem is that an awful lot has changed over the six years since Keystone became a national cause.
For one, the price of oil has fallen by more than half. Combined with activists throwing up one protest and legal challenge after another against other pipeline plans in the U.S. and Canada, the cost of oil has sent investors scurrying away from the Alberta tar sands. The once-confident plans to quadruple production in those oil fields have vanished, as new projects have been scuttled. Earlier this year Exxon wrote off its huge tar sands reserves, conceding they can't be profitably developed.
And even deeper forces are at play:
For starters, the price of a solar panel has plummeted over those six years, falling by more than half. When people went to jail in 2011 to block the Keystone pipeline, electric cars were obscure playthings of the rich. This fall, the Tesla Model 3, price tag $35,000, is scheduled to roll off Fremont assembly lines, with hundreds of thousands already sold. Norway has announced that its citizens won't be able to even buy an internal combustion vehicle there in a few years' time.
More crucially, the world set a new heat record in 2014, which was smashed in 2015 and smashed again in 2016. Last summer saw the highest reliably recorded temperature ever measured on our planet, 129.2 degrees (Death Valley at its hottest), reported in a big city in Kuwait. In late 2015, the planet's nations signed an accord in Paris promising to try to hold temperature increases on our Earth to 1.5 degrees Celsius. With Arctic sea ice diminishing to an all-time low this month, we're clearly near the breaking point for the planet we've known.
In a rational world, the evidence for global warming would have us running as fast as we can from projects like Keystone. The pipeline's economic rationale rests on its functioning for decades to come — it locks us into at least 50 more years of taking oil out of the tar sands and refining it into gasoline, slowing down the pace at which we'd install the renewable energy on which our future as a planet (and as an economic power) depends. The only reason — the only reason — for building Keystone XL or for ending other Obama-era climate rules is to help the fossil fuel industry. But since that industry owns the GOP, the Trump administration will do its bidding — he is, after all, the president who once announced that climate change was a Chinese hoax and hired Exxon's CEO to run his State Department.
Trump is doing his best to increase not just the supply but the demand for oil. He said in Detroit earlier this month that he wanted to gut new mileage standards mandated in the Obama years, and it seems likely he'll try to force a showdown over the exemption that lets California set its own emissions rules. If so, he'll be doing his best not just to break the electric car industry but also to return the Golden State to its brownish, smoggy past.
In fact, everything about Trump's energy policy involves a return to olden days. He rhapsodizes endlessly about coal miners as if they were a massive part of America's workforce, though they're now greatly outnumbered by solar installers and wind technicians. He loves Keystone for the same reason he loves that truck he sat in: It's big and made of shiny steel. He's thrilled by the wrong things — a 21st century leader would be tweeting about the news out of California on Sunday, when the state set a new record with more than half of its electricity coming from renewables.
Americans don't share Trump's archaic outlook. According to the Pew Center, a majority oppose the Keystone pipeline. Huge percentages of Republicans, independents and Democrats want more solar power. The level of worry about global warming is at an all-time high. That's why so many fossil fuel projects have been fought and beaten in the last few years, from drilling in the Arctic to fracking in New York, to building coal ports in the Pacific Northwest to running oil trains in San Luis Obispo. The Keystone protests kicked off a resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure that will not flag. In this battle between the past and future, there's simply too much at stake.
Bill McKibben is founder of 350.org, the global climate campaign, and Schumann distinguished scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College.