Yes we can—stop the Keystone XL pipeline

Obama’s base turns up the heat on the oil sands pipeline

Yes we can stop this

Yes we can stop this

One day in early September, some dozen Democratic activists showed up at the Washington state headquarters of Obama for America, the President’s re-election campaign organization in Seattle. They cornered the state director, Dustin Lambro, and called on the President to block TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would bring crude oil from the Alberta oil sands through the U.S. Midwest to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas, potentially doubling exports of oil sands crude to the U.S. “It’s not an issue I know much about,” Lambro said. So the activists gave him an earful.

“We want to get the message to President Obama,” said a bearded man in a baseball cap, “that if you want us to vote for you this time around, this is what you’ve got to do.” Added a woman: “If you want us to work for you, that’s more important. We all worked for you.” Said a grey-haired business owner: “I was a campaign donor for Obama. I raised money for him. I raised a lot of money for him. We can’t afford to have Barack Obama keep compromising on the issues and the values that endeared him to his faithful.” By the end of the encounter, Lambro offered: “I’ll call my boss in Chicago. She’ll relay the message to the senior leadership of the campaign.”

The scene, as captured on a YouTube video, is playing out all over the country as anti-pipeline advocates increasingly turn away from the official State Department-run permit process, and turn up the heat on Barack Obama’s political operation. They have been showing up at his speeches and fundraisers, and greet him with chants of “Yes We Can—Stop the Pipeline.” They bird-dog his top campaign manager, Jim Messina. And as a follow-up to the summer’s civil disobedience that saw some 1,200 activists arrested in front of the White House in August, they are planning demonstrations at Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago, and bigger operations at his state headquarters. Environmentalists also plan to remind the President of his environmental campaign promises on Nov. 6, one year before the election, by bringing 10,000 people to Washington to form a human ring around the White House.

“Keystone XL is the environmental test for the President between now and the election,” says Bill McKibben, a leading environmental organizer against the pipeline. “On this, we are more united than anything I can remember.”

Stephen Harper has said he is “confident” the $7-billion mega-project will go ahead. TransCanada CEO Russ Girling has said the project is “absolutely” going to happen. And certainly, the official presidential permit process that is being led by the State Department, with a decision due at the end of the year, has so far suggested that the pipeline is en route to approval. After a lengthy review, State issued a final environmental impact statement that environmental groups disagreed with. It concluded that the project would have no major environmental impacts in the U.S. as long as the company met certain conditions, and said that the pipeline would not cause greenhouse gas emissions to increase because, the State Department assumed, the oil sands would be developed regardless of whether the project went ahead.

But even as the State Department continues to hold additional public hearings along the pipeline route and in Washington, the activists are zeroing in on the President’s political calculus. “We’re not saying we won’t vote for him,” says Jane Kleeb, an anti-pipeline organizer in Nebraska. “What we are saying is we won’t donate money and we won’t volunteer to expand his base. Those are the things he needs to do to win. We will not work to re-elect Obama unless he does what he promised in his campaign—that he will make American energy independent and less reliant on oil.”

There is no doubt Obama is in a vulnerable spot. His support and enthusiasm among his followers has been faltering. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in September suggested that his base is growing disenchanted. The poll found that 69 per cent of liberals approve of his job as President, and only 47 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds approve—the first time this number has dropped below 50 per cent. This decline in support is particularly problematic for Obama, whose election depended on turning out many voters who had never voted or donated money before. “This is about the momentum and enthusiasm gap. On the right, there is a lot of enthusiasm about unseating the President. On the left, it’s very muted,” says Daniel Kessler, a spokesman for the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network. If Obama approves the pipeline, he says, “a lot of environmentalists are going to feel deflated.”

“Nobody likes to be played for suckers,” says McKibben. “If you promise, like Obama did, that if you are elected ‘the rise of the oceans will begin to slow and our planet will begin to heal,’ and you miss an obvious chance to do something about it, that’s being played for suckers.”

Although Obama brought in higher fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, some of his supporters feel let down by his failure to accomplish more on climate change. They are unhappy with his decisions to back down from tighter air quality standards and to open more American lands to drilling and coal development, for example. Obama also failed to push comprehensive climate change legislation through an uncooperative Congress, and did not take as active a role as environmentalists wanted in international climate talks. “We thought we had found our guy—and now there is a collective disappointment in what President Obama has delivered,” Kessler says. Environmentalists note that the Keystone XL issue is one where Obama cannot blame Republican opposition. “Keystone XL represents something where Obama doesn’t have to worry about Congress, Republicans or Tea Partiers. This is on his desk and his decision alone,” notes Kessler.

Joey Gray, a 44-year-old technology consultant and an organizer of the Seattle office visit, has also demonstrated at Obama’s fundraisers. The message is the same: if you permit the pipeline, you’ll lose our support. “People want to spent time on efforts and actions that are effective,” she said in an interview. “If it turns out that it’s not effective to spend time and money on the Obama campaign, then people will be putting their efforts elsewhere.”

The Obama campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but environmentalists say they are being heard. “I think the response is that it’s getting through to them,” says Ryan Salmon, energy policy adviser at the National Wildlife Federation, one of several large groups opposing the pipeline. “There have been rumblings that they are meeting about it. There are indications that this issue is factoring into the set of issues that the Obama campaign is looking at for 2012.”

But it’s far from clear that Obama will be swayed on this issue. His campaign is fixated on appealing to independent voters necessary for winning over swing states, and the overriding concern of American voters continues to be jobs. A project that promises thousands of new jobs in construction and oil sands development, and that uses American-made heavy machinery, may be hard to turn down at a time of massive unemployment.

“We are in such a difficult economic climate that anything that has the word jobs attached to it becomes kryptonite,” says political analyst Roland Martin. “Republicans have been beating the President over the head with ‘job-killing regulations’ and ‘job-killing taxes.’ At the end of the day, the sense I get from the Obama campaign is that they are thinking about how to target independent voters,” adds Martin, who follows Obama’s outreach to his base closely, and is host of Washington Watch on TV One, a channel that targets African-Americans.

Yet that strategy assumes that liberal voters will still come out in droves to support Obama and counter the enthusiasm of Republicans and Tea Partiers. “You are going to have an absolutely charged-up opposition,” says Martin. “They are going to turn out in massive numbers. You are going to need a massive turnout to counter that.”

Of course, the Obama campaign can point to the fact that Republican candidates vying to be their party’s nominee have doubted whether climate change is man-made, and have talked about dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency and opening more areas to drilling. But disliking the opponent may not translate into the kind of enthusiasm Obama needs to get re-elected. “It is a very tricky calculus for the Obama campaign to say, ‘We think the Republican nominee is going to be far worse’—that’s not always the most exciting thing to get your people out to vote,” Martin says. “They’re banking on it, but it’s an extremely risky thing for him to do.”