When President Obama announced Thursday that he was delaying a decision on the Keystone XL Pipeline for at least a year, it was partly the result of significant youth lobbying, says Courtney Hight, 32, co-director of the Energy Action Coalition.
The action also may have re-energized a 30s-and-under youth vote that was drifting away from his campaign.
“We are the generation that elected Barack Obama,” said Hight, formerly a staffer with the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “Most of the organizers on the [Obama] campaign were under 30, and believed in this vision that President Obama put out. We were a little frustrated by not seeing the leadership on climate change that we wanted. So the XL Pipeline issue was an opportunity.
“He had been risking young people’s votes, and he showed us that he cares about our vote,” she added. “A lot of us are reinvigorated by the fact that he delayed this pipeline, which essentially kills it.”
A protest action on Sunday, Nov. 6, may have been the game-changer on the Keystone Pipeline decision. That day, about 12,000 people formed concentric rings around the White House to express their outrage over the environmental effectsof the project. Those people, says Hight, were organized by youth organizers from the EAC, the climate change group 350.org and Tar Sands Action, which focuses resistance to the development of the Alberta Tar Sands in Canada, where oil for the pipeline originates. Rather than be described as a protest, the action was seen as giving support to Obama, to show him physically by surrounding his house that he had the political backing to say no to this project. Heavy lifting was also done by mainstream groups the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Chesapeake Climate Action Network, but the youthswere kept out front.
The EAC is a national coalition of about 50 youth environmental organizations, including the Sierra Student Coalition (the youth arm of the Sierra Club) and many other statewide student groups.
Over the summer, the EAC and many of these groups considered the pipeline a done deal -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had said as much -- but students realized that this was one decision the president could make without congressional approval because it was being handled at the State Department. Groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network in South Dakota had been fighting an existing version of the pipeline (it extends into the Dakotas already) for more than four years.
So, in August, students gathered at the White House to express their disapproval, and 1,253 of them were arrested. Hight’s friends inside the White House acknowledged to her that the issue hadn’t really been on the president’s radar until that point. So she and others dug in.
Students in Missouri raised money and bought tickets to Obama campaign fundraisers, at which they asked pointed questions about the pipeline and the tar sands. Soon, students were dogging the campaign, asking questions at Obama for America offices, campaign events, fundraisers and debates. Then, the big action on Sunday.
“I haven’t seen this level of youth involvement in the movement since the Obama campaign,” said Hight. “We’re not done, but we had a win.”
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Photo: Youth demonstrators are prominent among the 12,000 demonstrators against the Keystone XL Pipeline project who surrounded the White House on Nov.6, 2011. Credit: Shadia Fayne Wood/tarsandsaction.org