Life After Keystone: The Future of the Climate Movement When the Pipeline Battle Ends

Green groups are working to keep momentum alive in the climate fight.

President Obama could reject or approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline any day, week or month now. And as a decision looms, environmentalists face a daunting question: Can they recreate the kind of mass appeal that Keystone inspires when the pipeline battle ends?

Green groups such as the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council,, Friends of the Earth, the National Wildlife Federation, Environment America, and Bold Nebraska have all engaged in meetings to discuss the future of the climate movement in a world without Keystone, and plan to join forces to make sure that the pipeline fight leaves a lasting legacy.

For nearly five years, opposition to Keystone has been a rallying cry for the movement. Thousands of activists have protested the pipeline intended to ship oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast, while some of the movement's most-celebrated leaders risked arrest in demonstrations at the White House.

But the fight can't last forever.

"Everyone is thinking about what comes next," said David Goldston, the director of government affairs for Natural Resources Defense Council. "Is there another issue that might engage the grassroots the way that Keystone has and what will it be?"

As warnings about global warming grow increasingly dire and international climate talks loom this year, environmentalists are painfully aware that now more than ever, they must prove their power in Washington and around the world.

But there may never be a fight quite like Keystone. Farmers and ranchers have marched alongside Native Americans and activists of all ages and walks of life to protest the pipeline. Rarely has any environmental fight had the power to unite such a diverse coalition.

"I don't think there will be a one-to-one replacement. I don't think you'll see an immediate shift toward any one particular project," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in an interview.

Of course, green groups are engaged in a wide array of campaigns. At the top of the list is an effort to defend Obama's push to regulate carbon pollution from power plants, a central pillar of the White House climate agenda. Environmentalists also are pushing companies to shed investments in fossil fuels and fighting against fracking.

Protecting environmental regulations from attacks led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Capitol Hill Republicans is guaranteed to soak up time and effort, and could spark activism as well.

Rather than attempting to manufacture the next major showdown, environmentalists say the overarching strategy will be to keep as many irons in the fire as possible while making sure that groups are ready to coalesce behind battles that captivate the American public. If another issue achieves fame on par with the pipeline, it will gain momentum gradually and at the grassroots level, and not as the result of top-down decisions in Washington.

"We want to build as large a movement as possible but to say that any of us know exactly how to re-create Keystone would just be wrong," said Ben Schreiber, the climate and energy director for Friends of the Earth.

"Sadly, there is no shortage of high-profile destructive projects that we are deeply concerned about," Brune said. "Drilling in the Arctic? That seems like an important issue for us to tackle and put a lot of resources into. Potential drilling in the Atlantic? We're surely going to go after that with all that we can. Lifting the oil export ban? That seems nuts and is a good organizing opportunity. Expanding fracking? Exporting coal to other countries?"

Friends of the Earth has already started to build up the infrastructure behind its campaign to stop fossil fuel extraction on public lands, and hopes to channel strong feelings stirred up by Keystone into that battle.

"Keystone has been hugely important for our activists and we don't want that energy to dissipate. We need people to understand that this is part of a larger push to leave fossil fuels in the ground and so that's where we're going," said Schreiber.

Some groups plan to focus on electoral politics. Environmental mega-donor Tom Steyer announced Monday that his super PAC will attempt to make Republican 2016 contenders pay a political price for questioning the reality of man-made climate change.

But even with deep-pocketed donors, environmentalists will need to turn activists out in the streets to convince Washington to act on climate.

"I think there's a natural anxiety right now. We've just been living and breathing the issue for so long," said Jane Kleeb, the director of Bold Nebraska, a non-profit that has played a major role in galvanizing grassroots opposition to Keystone. "It's like working on a candidate's campaign. It takes over your whole life and in the months after it's kind of depressing. It's not go-go-go anymore."

Green goups may not all chart the same path forward after a White House decision on Keystone, but they plan to coordinate closely. (Activists already hold a weekly call where groups discuss the latest developments in the pipeline fight.)

Apart from contemplating the shape future grassroots activism may take, groups also are strategizing how to set a Keystone precedent.

President Obama promised to approve the pipeline only if it does not worsen global warming. Environmentalists call that litmus test the "Keystone principle," and plan to press the president along with future administrations to take climate change into account in major policy decisions.

Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to weigh in before Obama makes a final decision. A State Department official said that once all of the information needed to review the pipeline has been analyzed, "a determination of whether the proposed project is in the national interest will be made."

Elevating the profile of climate change won't be an easy task. Climate ranks notoriously low on the list of voter concerns. Efforts to prioritize climate are also guaranteed to face fierce pushback on Capitol Hill and would likely meet stiff resistance if a Republican wins the White House in 2016.

But environmentalists are optimistic that Keystone will cast a long shadow.

"It won't be an easy fight but we need to get to a point where every public decision factors in climate change, " said Julian Boggs, Environment America's global warming program director. "Ultimately that's the only way we win."