Is Obama slowly winning over Bill McKibben?

The president's standard for approving Keystone pipeline is "a good one," the leading environmentalist tells Salon

Published June 27, 2013 4:55PM (EDT)

Following President Obama’s much-anticipated climate address Tuesday, many advocates were abuzz with praise for the president's speech. “The best address on climate by any president ever,” former Vice President Al Gore gushed of the speech, which outlined, among other things, the President’s plan to order the EPA to limit carbon emissions from new and existing power plants. “The most aggressive and promising climate plan to come out of the executive branch in years,” climatologist Michael Mann assented in a statement on Facebook.

In the midst of all the accolades, one wondered what Bill McKibben, one of the nation’s leading environmentalists (and Obama critics on the environment), would have to say about it. The head of the advocacy organization,, McKibben has sharply criticized what he has referred to as President Obama’s “waffling and contradictory” climate policy, particularly his refusal to take a stand on the Keystone pipeline, which would carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta 1,200 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Yet for McKibben, the speech on Tuesday seems to have represented a turning point in the President’s stance on climate change. “I thought he was straightforward, forthright, and clear,” McKibben told Salon.

One of the most memorable aspects of the President's address was toward the end of the speech, when President Obama made a clarion call to invest in clean energy while divesting from fossil fuels. “Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth,” the president said. Bloggers and wonks jumped on the "invest/divest" slogan, which MSNBC's Chris Hayes referred to as "the most crypto-radical line the president has ever uttered." McKibben also weighed in, tweeting, “Today President Obama called for fossil fuel divestment. Wasn’t expecting to write that sentence.”

“It was a great shoutout to a key part of [the president’s] base,” McKibben said, referring to the college students at nearly 300 college campuses who are encouraging their schools to stop investing in fossil fuels.

Yet by far the biggest bombshell from Obama's speech was his reference to Keystone XL. The project, which would facilitate the extraction and release of nearly 240 billion tons of carbon, has drawn the protestations of environmentalists like McKibben, who was arrested at a Washington, D.C. action last February. Because the pipeline crosses international borders, the authority to build it rests with the President, not with Congress, which McKibben has argued would create a unique opportunity for the President to take a stand against global warming.

Until his speech on Tuesday, President Obama was notoriously cagey on whether or not the pipeline would be approved. Yet despite his aides’ suggestions that the President would not mention Keystone in his address, Obama used the speech as an opportunity to address the controversy over the pipeline, stating that he would only approve its construction if “doing so would be in our nation’s interests. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

Both opponents and supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline interpreted this statement differently: some said this meant the project would be nixed, while others interpreted it as purposefully nebulous, with the term "significantly exacerbate" giving the president substantial wiggle room to approve the project. For his part, McKibben is taking the president's promise at face value.

“If that’s the standard -- and it’s a good one -- there’s no way the pipeline can be approved,” McKibben said. “It clearly helps open up this huge pool of carbon to further exploitation.”

By Ej Dickson

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Al Gore Bill Mckibben Climate Change Environment Interview Keystone Pipeline President Obama