It seemed like the afterthought in the payroll tax cut extension fight, a small consolation prize to the Republicans on what should have been the easiest of bi-partisan votes. But the two-month clock is now ticking on whether Obama will approve the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada's environmentally disastrous tar sands. If we want him to make the right decision and deny the permit, maybe it's time to Occupy Exxon, with creative protests at local Exxon/Mobil stations. Of course we need to keep pressuring Obama. The bill's deadline precludes anything close to the kind of comprehensive environmental review that he called for after rallies and civil disobedience at the White House led him to delay approval for a year. But why not also go after the oil companies whose influence led the Republicans to hold the rest of the unemployment and payroll tax bill hostage to the fast-track requirement. Exxon/Mobil has long been the dirtiest of the dirty among these companies. This makes them a logical target.
In a week heralding news of melting Arctic methane beds, and a year of record global temperatures and billion-dollar weather-related disasters, demanding Keystone's approval is a stunning exercise in denial. But that's the deal that passed. So our challenge is not only to get Obama to reject the pipeline. We also want to make this raw power grab backfire on those who insisted on it by turning at least part of the national conversation back onto oil company greed.
The more we do this, the more political room we create for Obama both to block the pipeline and to act more forcefully on climate change in general. So just as Occupy Wall Street has got us talking about predatory banks, Occupying Exxon would get Americans thinking about destructive fossil fuel interests — whether they're fighting for the pipeline, convincing the Republicans to block proposed cut-backs to their massive tax subsidies, or paying nothing in federal income taxes, as Exxon did as recently as 2009. Targeting Exxon links an issue most Americans may have barely heard of with a company known as an embodiment of greed. It also links Exxon's lobbying for the pipeline with their long-time backing of climate change denial. Using strategies, scientists, and PR firms borrowed from the tobacco industry, Exxon contributed $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to groups denying human-caused climate change and spent over $55 million to lobbying, at a time when even BP and Shell were beginning to acknowledge the reality. Exxon claimed they've now cut this funding, but continue to back institutes and support politicians who promote denial.
The pipeline matters, because building it invites the acceleration of tar sands extraction. And the process leaves the resulting fuel contributing as much as three times the greenhouse emissions per energy unit as conventional oil. Given the massive size of these deposits, their full exploitation, say NASA's leading climate scientist, James Hansen, would create "game over for the planet." For this reason, 20 of Hansen's most respected climate scientist peers sent a letter to Obama opposing the pipeline, as did Desmond Tutu, eight other Nobel Peace Prize winners, and every major American environmental group, including the most conservative ones.
Given Obama's two month decision window, we need to keep pressure on the White House, from calling and writing, to public rallies, perhaps even at Obama campaign offices. The chances of Obama again rising to the occasion are far greater if there's continued public outcry about the pipeline. But one powerful way to create this is to tie the proposal and the politicians who've backed it to the greed-driven agenda of the oil companies. I'd suggest we invite the Occupy Movement, environmental groups, and anyone appalled at our pay-to-play politics to show up at local Exxon/Mobil stations in whatever nonviolent and creative ways they can, whether through picketing, vigils, guerrilla theater, or civil disobedience. Other oil companies are also involved in the tar sands, like BP, Chevron, Shell and Conoco. Brand-name gas stations sometimes sell fuel from ostensible competitors. But Exxon remains the most powerful symbol, because of all they've done and are continuing to do in promoting blanket denial.
As always, the Republicans claim this is a jobs issue. Yet a credible Cornell study points out that the pipeline could actually cost American jobs, and even if the pipeline backers are right, we're talking only 5,000-6,000 temporary positions for two years. That doesn't count the climate change risks or the potential for the pipeline to break and pollute the massive Ogallala aquifer that sustains America's agricultural heartland. The latter possibility impelled Nebraska's Republican governor to speak out against the pipeline, in the wake of major citizen outcry and a 42,000-gallon leak this past July that spilled into the Yellowstone River from Exxon's Silvertip Pipeline. So any economic benefit would go largely to the project's promoters.
For most Americans, I suspect Keystone feels like an obscure minor issue worth the tangible gain of extending unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut. I doubt they're highly invested on either side. But we know that the groups that lobbied for the Pipeline will go all out this round, so staying silent or confining ourselves to virtual lobbying is a bad option. But if we make Exxon and the oil companies the sleazy face of the fight, we can change the political context. Occupy Exxon protests would invite people to undertake flexible and creative approaches to the issue in their own backyards. They'd highlight the oil companies as the heart of the issue, so if Obama allows the pipeline, he'll be seen as supporting them, and if he blocks it, he can justly frame it as challenging corporate greed. Exxon's long undermined the habitability of the planet, from their day-to-day operations to their long-term political role. Targeting them just might make their latest destructive power grab finally backfire.
Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen, with 130,000 copies in print including a newly updated second edition now being used in hundreds of schools to promote civic engagement. He's also the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. See www.paulloeb.org To receive Paul's articles directly www.paulloeb.org/subscribe.html