Chester Bennington's Widow Breaks Her Silence

Bill McKibben on Obama's Keystone XL Rejection: 'The Tide Is Starting to Turn'

McKibben calls Friday's announcement a turning point in the fight against climate change

Flanked by John Kerry and Joe Biden, President Obama announced he had rejected construction of the Keystone XL pipeline Friday. Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

On Friday afternoon, President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden gathered in the Roosevelt Room at the White House to announce the administration had rejected a request by the oil company TransCanada to construct the Keystone XL, a pipeline designed to carry crude oil from the Alberta tar sands through the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico, where it could be shipped to world markets.

The pipeline wouldn't create jobs, or lower gas prices, or increase America's energy security, Obama said. The pipeline had turned into a symbol, with outsize of influence on the political conversation, and approving it would send the wrong message: that America was not serious about combating climate change.

"America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change. And frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.  And that's the biggest risk we face — not acting," Obama said Friday.

The words were welcome ones to environmentalist Bill McKibben, who spent the last four years leading the campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline (and writing about it for Rolling Stone).

McKibben spoke to Rolling Stone from Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he had just given a speech about climate change.

With the fight over Keystone finally over, McKibben reflected on its start: the moment he heard NASA's leading climate scientist, Jim Hansen, say that if the pipeline went through, and the world burnt through the oil located in the Alberta tar sands, it would be "game over" for the planet.

"That was the first time for me, and I think for most people, there was this sudden realization that there were profound limits to business as usual, and we had run into them. And that's the message that, in the end, carried the day," McKibben says. "From Jim Hansen's lips to President Obama's ears — though it took four very long and difficult and magnificent years to get there."

McKibben says it was gratifying to hear President Obama, when explaining his decision, place a strong emphasis on climate change, even more so than the economic or safety impact of the pipeline, or any of the many other issues that have swirled around the Keystone decision. "We've always said from the beginning, when we started the protest: What we want is for President Obama to live up to the words that he's spoke about climate change, the words he spoke in the 2008 campaign. And in this case he did."

He calls the Friday announcement, and the news Thursday that New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is investigating ExxonMobil for lying about its knowledge that fossil fuels contributed to climate change, a turning point. 

"They really sort of combined in my mind to really make it feel viscerally as if the tide is starting to turn and things beginning to shift and the fossil fuel industry just not going to have its way every time from now on like they have for so long."

Obama, McKibben says, is "the first world leader to stop a big project because of its effect on the climate. That's a real legacy and one that will reverberate all over the world."

"I think this a really big moment not just for Keystone, but in a much larger sense. I think the proof of that is, in the wake of this battle over Keystone, every fossil fuel project around the world now is facing the same kind of resistance," he says. "As one industry executive said this year, there's been a Keystone-ization of every other pipeline, coal mine and fracking well, and that's a very good thing."

All three Democratic candidates for president applauded Obama's decision Friday, while their Republican counterparts were quick to seize on an opportunity to attack the president's judgement.

Chris Christie called it a "predictable" decisions from "a liberal environmentalist ideologue." Marco Rubio characterized it as a "huge mistake" and "the latest reminder that this administration continues to prioritize the demands of radical environmentalists over America's energy security." If elected, Rubio said he would reverse the decision.