In his first hours in office, Joe Biden has settled—almost certainly, once and for all—one of the greatest environmental battles this country has seen. He has cancelled the permit allowing the Keystone XL pipeline to cross the border from Canada into the United States, and the story behind that victory illustrates a lot about where we stand in the push for a fair and working planet.
The most important outcome of the Keystone XL fight was that Obama imposed a de-facto “climate test” on all new large-scale infrastructure projects that require federal approval—and, if you apply the most basic version of that challenge to either of these projects, they fail instantly. Pressure is already building on Biden to do something about them; a letter last week from seventy-five indigenous women leaders demanded the cancellation of all three pipelines. His response to the Dakota Access and Line 3 pipelines will likely depend on the shifting balance of power between environmentalists, indigenous groups, and organized labor.
This surprises many people, who are used to thinking of the fossil-fuel industry as the main pressure group. But that industry is at its strongest during Republican Administrations. With Democrats in power, an equally important constituency is the building-trades unions of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., because they get the well-paid jobs involved in constructing these mega-projects; the unions were staunch proponents of Keystone XL from the start.