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Environmentalists Cheer Keystone XL Pipeline Decision As 'Decisive Moment'


Tonight, environmental activists celebrated at Lafayette Park in front of the White House.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: But this is a truly powerful moment, so let's make sure we celebrate it, say thanks to ourselves and, three more times, thank you, Mr. President.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, Mr. President.

MCEVERS: For some more reaction on the president's decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, we reached Bill McKibben in Burlington, Vt. He is an environmentalist, a founder of 350.org, and he was one of the loudest voices opposing the pipeline. Bill, thanks for being with us.

BILL MCKIBBEN: Hey, what a pleasure, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So was this a surprise?

MCKIBBEN: Well, we'd been hoping for many months, really, many years now, that this decision would come. But I must say, you know, when I heard the news this morning, it set me back for a minute. This is the first time that a world leader has stopped a major fossil fuel project because of its effect on the climate. It's the first time that the power of big oil's been broken like that even a little, and that's a pretty astonishing thing.

MCEVERS: The president did say that the question about the pipeline - whether it should or shouldn't exist - had a, quote, "overinflated role in our political discourse," that it had become a kind of symbol. I mean, it is just one pipeline. The world is going to keep using oil. I mean, how important is this in terms of our overall footprint?

MCKIBBEN: It's important in terms of its 800,000 barrels a day of the dirtiest oil on Earth. It's important because the opposition to this and other pipelines has completely stopped what was the planned doubling, tripling, quadrupling of the tar sands mining complex up there. Investors have pulled out billions and billions of dollars. And it's significant because it's launched a thousand other such fights all over the place.

MCEVERS: I mean, the tar sands oil is still in the tar sands. I mean, the case could be made that once the oil prices go up, somebody else could go and get it.

MCKIBBEN: Well, they're going to have to do it without a pipeline. And if you take a look at the map, Alberta's a long ways from anywhere. My guess is that this will delay them enough that no one's ever going to really go back for tar sands oil again. With each month that passes, a solar panel gets 2 or 3 percent cheaper. So while we're holding the fossil fuel industry in check, the engineers in the renewable energy world are undercutting them from the other side.

MCEVERS: How lasting is this decision, do you think? I mean, could it change with another administration in the White House?

MCKIBBEN: Oh, sure. I mean, look; the minute a new president takes over, TransCanada could, you know, announce some new version of this. They could call it the Super Duper Patriot Freedom Burn-All-the-Oil-You-Can pipeline, and maybe they'd be able to get it through. But I don't think it's going to happen. I think that this is a really decisive moment.

And what strikes me about it is that when this fight began, no one thought there was any chance of victory. This was the great environmental fight of the last couple of decades, and it's built a movement that's so broad and so diverse that it can now hold its own increasingly against the richest industry the world has ever seen.

MCEVERS: This is obviously a big moment for the environmental movement. What's next?

MCKIBBEN: Well, the fight now is to keep it in the ground, as the president said, to keep coal and oil and gas underground and - just like we were going to do in the tar sands. That's happening all over the country and all over the world. I don't know if we've started in time. This is the hottest year the planet's ever seen. The Arctic and the Antarctic are melting quickly. We may have waited too long to get started. But this is a day for optimism because the battle is fully joined, and the idea that big oil is unbeatable is no longer true.

MCEVERS: That's author and environmentalist Bill McKibben. Bill, thanks so much for being with us.

MCKIBBEN: Thank you, Kelly, very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.