Stopping Keystone XL Has to Be Just the Start

President Joe Biden gives his inaugural address on Jan. 20.

President Joe Biden gives his inaugural address on Jan. 20.
Photo: Jonathan Ernst (Getty Images)

President Joe Biden took office on Wednesday, saying he would get right to work on “tackling the crises we face,” including the climate crisis.

Among his first official acts, Biden is expected to issue executive orders rescinding the Keystone XL pipeline permits and putting a moratorium on drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, both green-lighted by Donald Trump. Undoing the past four years of climate damage under Trump is the easy part, though. The real work is unraveling centuries of destruction and subjugation.

The protests over Keystone XL and Arctic Refuge drilling have been led by Indigenous groups. And given Trump’s intense fixation on opening the Arctic for extraction up to the 11th hour, that, in particular, is a huge win.

“The Gwich’in Nation is grateful to the President for his commitment to protecting sacred lands and the Gwich’in way of life,” Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said in a statement. “We have fought so hard to protect these lands and the Porcupine caribou herd, trusting the guidance of our ancestors and elders, and the allyship of people around the world.”

But stepping back from the individual wins, it’s also clear there is so much more to do. The injustice doesn’t stop at killing off one or two projects, it requires a daily commitment to address the other pipelines that slither across the landscape like toxic boa constrictors and the oil and gas wells that belch pollution.

“We are very, very, very grateful for the recognition of the decades-long fight against Keystone XL and the reaffirmation of our treaty rights and environmental law,” Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, said. “But the climate crisis is to such a degree that we need stronger, bolder action. It’s extremely disappointing to see action on KXL, but utter silence on the Dakota Access pipeline and Line 3 pipeline.”

Indeed, the day before Biden will pull the Keystone XL, protesters settled into a series of camps along Line 3, a pipeline that will run from Alberta to Wisconsin. The project involves abandoning an already-laid pipeline and creating a new route through a large swath of land that Indigenous groups have treaty rights to. In addition to fueling the climate crisis by making it easier to transport highly polluting tar sands to market, the pipeline also poses an existential threat to delicate ecosystems and landscapes that Indigenous groups view as sacred. Under Trump, Customs and Border Patrol drones flew the pipeline route and appear to have surveilled—or at least flown suspiciously around—the house of at least one activist organizing against the pipeline.

Similarly, the Dakota Access pipeline was widely opposed by Indigenous activists. President Obama blocked it in December 2016 only for Trump to change course within days of taking office at the same time he gave the go-ahead for Keystone XL. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe led opposition to the pipeline even after construction finished and it began pumping oil. They won a major court victory last July, but the pipeline continues to operate, putting waterways and the climate at risk.

An incremental plan that shuts down a pipeline or two while letting others continue to pump poison is not justice. Nor is it justice to ban new oil and gas leases in the Arctic while letting extraction run amok in the backyards of other Indigenous nations.

“We are not free until we’re all free,” Goldtooth said, paraphrasing civil rights organizer Fannie Lou Hamer. “Let’s transform this economy to build millions of green jobs. Let’s transform this economy to be more accountable to those who for generations have sacrificed their lives for the benefit of a few.”

It’s within the realm of possibility Biden will make moves to take on other pipelines and extractive activities near Indigenous lands. He has nominated Rep. Deb Halaand, a member of the Laguna Pueblo who was part of the Dakota Access pipeline protests, to be secretary of the interior. And his administration has signaled that Jan. 27 will be a big day for more climate-related executive orders (feel free to put it in your calendar). But even that can’t be the end, nor can those climate executive orders focus solely on emissions—and groups plan to remind the president of that every day.

“Black, brown, and Indigenous people are who got Biden into office,” Goldtooth said. “It was our votes that were the critical swing votes in those key battleground states, and so we’re going to do our very best to hold him accountable for his promises and the need to protect frontline communities from further toxic pollution.”

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