Keystone XL shows growing power of grassroots politics

By John Parnell

A Tea Party rally in Washington.

A Tea Party rally in Washington. Regardless of how you feel about its politics, the Tea Party's growth has been spectacular. (Source: Silveira Neto)

Before Barack Obama was inaugurated, there were calls for him to “govern from the middle”.

In the end, he has just been left stuck in the middle.

In the face of recurring stalemates and partisan squabbling, grassroots movements have seized advantage and filled the vacuum for many voters.

The clearest example of this is the long-running dispute over the Keystone XL pipeline to transport tar sands oil from Canada to the US Gulf coast. The strength of feeling on this issue is so great that two of the largest grassroots movements, Occupy and The Tea Party, which are diametrically opposed in practically every way, have formed an alliance.

The company behind the proposals for Keystone, TransCanada, has confirmed that the southern section of the route, from an oil storage hub in Cushing, Oklahoma, to refineries on the Gulf coast, will be constructed.

Meanwhile, it has also resubmitted it application for the remainder of the pipeline to the State Department.

A previous application was rejected by the Obama administration as the timing of the decision was rushed through by Republicans before additional environmental assessments were completed.

Objections to the original application centred on the pipeline’s route over an important aquifer in Nebraska that was a crucial source of freshwater in the region.

Environmentalists are concerned about the excess of carbon that will be released in to the atmosphere by extracting and burning Canada’s tar sands reserves.

A pipeline for the people?

The debate has now turned to Texas, where landowners are unhappy at the use of “eminent domain” to purchase their property for the pipeline.

Eminent domain allows land for infrastructure projects (usually those of the government or utility companies) to be bought at a fair price, but without the consent of the owner.

The debate will boil down to whether private oil companies can be considered to provide the same public service that the electricity grid or a new railway might.

Much of the publicity has focused on a farmer called Julia Trigg Crawford. She described the situation in no uncertain terms.

“A foreign-owned, for-profit, non-permitted pipeline has taken a Texan’s land. Doesn’t sound right, does it?”

TransCanada disagrees saying that because the pipeline is open for any company to use, it is essentially a public service and meets the “common carrier” status that Texan law requires to allow eminent domain to be used.

Not in my name

The anti-Keystone protests organised by the 350 climate change movement was the largest act of civil disobedience in a generation. (Source: Wiki/Ekabhishek)

A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 58% of Americans say that either the Tea Party or the Occupy Movement share their values. At the same time, the country’s elected members of Congress, are struggling with an approval rating of 10%.

Keystone XL has repeatedly shown the growing mainstreaming of grassroots political movements.

Protests in Washington elicited the largest civil disobedience action in a generation.

While the war over Keystone XL in Washington has frustrated many, Debra Medina, Texan Conservative advocate, has detailed how the battles have played out for normal citizens.

She says that despite TransCanada’s claims that legal action is a last resort, almost 100 cases in Texas have gone to court with some people left little choice but to negotiate a price as they can’t afford the legal fees.

Away from the world of US politics, grassroots groups can also act as catalyst for change.

The Transition movement in the UK has been the trigger for communities of all sizes to carry out initiatives in their area.

These have been as simple as community funded tree planting schemes to establishing their own currencies to keep money flowing through local shops to more ambitious community energy projects.

Regardless of your own political persuasion, there is a clear pattern in the governments of many developed nations of inaction and terminal inertia with policy implementation.

This lack of movement is allowing local level politics to pick up the slack and fill the silence. For now at least, power appears to be returning to the people.

VIDEO: The Occupy Movement’s clean energy strategy

Occupy LSX talk energy equity and climate change from Responding to Climate Change on Vimeo.

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