11/16/2011 09:09 EST | Updated 01/16/2012 05:12 EST

Putting the Oil Barons on Notice

Delaying the Keystone pipeline is not just about the blockage of one project. It is about instilling in people a comprehension of the strength of their agitation and organizing. It's about lifting the cloak off the oil baron's invincibility and omnipotence.

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The tremors are being felt in oil industry boardrooms across North America. President Obama's request for another State Department review of TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline is rightly being celebrated as an enormous victory for the environmental movement. The decision could cost the Canadian company a delay of a year and half, more than a billion dollars, and likely the project itself. And it has sent a rarely heard message to the oil industry: Your interests may no longer govern the most pressing matters of our age.

The oil barons had every reason to assume the success of their usual formula: convert their bottomless pit of money into a free political ride. So confident was TransCanada that they brazenly colluded with the State Department to have one of their own consulting companies review their pipeline proposal. They sunk nearly $2 billion into the purchase of land and material, and secured agreements to sell their crude. Now their pipes will gather dust in warehouses; investors and the oil shippers may take flight.

Nothing now worries the oil industry more than the stranding of their bitumen. The potential demise of the Keystone XL has thrown into doubt the industry's plans for full-scale expansion of the notoriously dirty Albertan tar sands -- which NASA scientist James Hansen unforgettably described as "game over" for the climate. Oil companies can ship only as much as pipelines can carry: Without the Keystone XL, which industry had banked on to facilitate a huge production jump, Alberta's oil will be ever-more landlocked.

Such a fight-back against the oil barons hearkens back to American Progressive Era. More than a hundred years ago, John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil bullied and bribed any government that stood in its way. It ruthlessly destroyed its antagonists and enriched America's first billionaires. A powerful peoples' movement arose in response, composed of the same unlikely alliances of farmers, unions, senators and ordinary people that have marked the Keystone XL battle -- and led by the crusading writer-turned-activist Ida Tarbell, who seems to have been reincarnated in Bill McKibben. The popular pressure emboldened President Theodore Roosevelt to chart a course that should be the standard for Obama: he declared the company's directors "the biggest criminals in the country," and through new regulations shattered their power.

The difference now is the stakes are incalculably higher. The conservative International Energy Agency (IEA) has just issued an uncharacteristically dire warning: the frantic pace of construction of fossil fuel infrastructure could see our chance of combatting climate change "lost forever." The world's existing infrastructure is already producing close to the planetary carbon capacity, just short of triggering runaway climatic changes; new construction will "lock-in" the planet for certain disaster. This offers an ever-narrowing gap in which to transition to low-carbon economies: a window of five years, according the IEA. Which means the movement that has just defeated one pipeline must rapidly mount a challenge against the very logic of the expansionist, extractive outlook that knows no limits.

It is already avoiding the mistake the progressive movement made after they helped put Obama in the White House. They rested on their laurels. They seemed to forget that it is only ever independent social movements marshaling numbers and unceasingly making strong demands that can force fundamental change, and never a president of his own volition. The movement's organizers have already gathered thousands of signatures on a pledge of further non-violent resistance in case the Keystone XL rears its head. And they are looking to lend support to Canadian counterparts, who are obstructing two pipeline alternatives -- the Northern Gateway and TransMountain, which would carry tar sands crude to the Pacific -- that the oil barons are now eying with heightened resolve.

This victory, of course, is not just about the blockage of one pipeline project. It is about instilling in people a comprehension of the strength of their agitation and organizing. It's about lifting the cloak off the oil baron's invincibility and omnipotence. It's about giving the American public a sense that these goliath, greedy companies should -- and more importantly can -- be controlled, brought to heel, and perhaps even made to serve the interests of the citizens of their country. This renewed power will be needed not just to strangle and shutdown the tar sands industry, but every extreme energy project that imperils the planet's ability to sustain itself: mountaintop coal mining, deep-sea oil drilling, and gas and oil fracking.

It is a hopeful time in north America. The Occupy movement has fingered the vast and unaccountable power of corporations as the source of spiraling inequality and poverty. And the environmental movement against the Keystone XL has helped show that the climate crisis may in fact have the same root: that the frenzied search for every last drop of dirty oil is driven by the same impulse that drives the reckless search for every last dollar of profit. Checking corporate power may soon be understood as the only option for not merely a just, but also sustainable future. The oil barons have been put on notice.