Environmentalists provide the pipeline for getting a message across in Washington

The story of how a unique coalition of ranchers, farmers, everyday citizens, and DC environmentalists turned the Keystone XL pipeline, a 1,700-mile project from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico, into the largest environmental fight of the year is full of lessons for those looking to put an issue, brand, or message onto the public agenda.

The story of how a unique coalition of ranchers, farmers, everyday citizens, and DC environmentalists turned the Keystone XL pipeline, a 1,700-mile project from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico, into the largest environmental fight of the year is full of lessons for those looking to put an issue, brand, or message onto the public agenda. 

The campaign against Keystone XL relied on four key messages. 

First, was labeling it as a threat to America's land and water. The iconic spokesperson for this message was Randy Thompson, a Republican landowner from Nebraska, a state at risk along the pipeline route. A savvy local advocacy group, Bold Nebraska, adorned posters and T-shirts with Randy's face, helped him testify at local meetings, and got outlets including The New York Times to cover his story. Advocacy groups shared his statements over social media and StandWithRandy.com was soon launched to capitalize on his new following.

The second key message was that developing Canadian tar sands would mean, in the words of our top climate scientist, NASA's Dr. James Hansen, "essentially game over" for the climate. Tar Sands Action, an effort I helped direct and one backed by a coalition of environmental groups, quickly disseminated this statement online and urged citizens to join in a two-week White House sit-in in August to urge President Obama to deny the pipeline a permit. The sit-in, which led to 1,253 arrests, provided the drama necessary to put Keystone XL firmly in the public debate. 

Keystone XL wouldn't have become a key political issue without our third message - that the pipeline was Obama's opportunity to make good on his environmental promises. In November, Tar Sands Action organized a second protest, this time encircling the White House with more than 12,000 people carrying quotes from the President, reminding him (and the press) of his unique responsibility to stop Keystone XL. Just days after the demonstration, which drew national coverage, the White House announced it would delay the permit over environmental and health concerns. 

Now, with Republicans and Big Oil pushing the project, we're focused on labeling Keystone XL a "Big Oil scam." Americans distrust oil companies and give Congress only an 11% approval rating. If we can make the pipeline a symbol of the type of political cronyism endemic to DC, we'll have a good chance of making it even more unpopular. 


Jamie Henn is cofounder and communications director of 350.org, a climate movement founded in 2008 working in more than 188 nations.

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