Almost a year ago, I drove out to the East Texas pine country, where young men and women were fastening themselves to heavy excavation equipment, enduring scalding blasts of pepper spray from chuckling local sheriff's deputies.
Being there, you could almost believe that these kids were slowing the Keystone pipeline's progress through Texas to its massive gulf refinery complex. Even if it were only for a few days, it felt like it amounted to something. Meanwhile, nearby tiny hamlets were banding together to safeguard their water supply against the very legitimate threat of a diluted bitumen spill. One landowner whose property was bisected by the pipeline even managed to secure a brief injunction against pipeline company TransCanada. Other landowners challenged the company's use of eminent domain to secure right of ways through private land.
See also: There Will Be Tar Sand
But this is Texas, a land woven with mainlines and gathering lines and distribution lines, where property rights generally take a backseat to almighty crude. They were never going to win. TransCanada just announced that the southern portion of the Keystone pipeline -- stretching from the Cushing, Oklahoma, oil hub to the Texas coast -- is 95 percent complete.
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It will begin carrying oil to refiners in a few weeks.
The section carrying diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands mines to Cushing remains under review. The mines represent a huge reservoir of carbon. The State Department says the mines get developed with or without Keystone. President Barack Obama has said he would not approve it if the pipeline exacerbates "the problem of carbon pollution." How he interprets that equation remains to be seen.
But it's also where the protests, the climate activism, have left their mark. Even TransCanada's CEO admitted the review process was "hijacked by activists that are opposed to the development of all fossil fuels."
He sounds worried, and he should be. The process has dragged on for five years now. The message is theirs. What is the climate legacy of the Keystone? The kids out in the pine woods may have lost Texas, but they framed the debate.