Breaking down the Keystone pipeline fight

Posted at 12:53 PM, Feb 26, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-27 10:12:05-05

Tree huggers and oil barons - that’s the insurmountable ideological divide in the Keystone XL pipeline standoff, right? Somehow the bill became a symbol for both sides – one claiming the pipeline would surely destroy the earth as we know it, and the other talking about it as if it deliver America’s economic rebirth. But here’s the thing - it didn’t have to be that way.

On Tuesday President Obama vetoed the legislation to much gnashing of teeth from the Republican Party. GOP leadership already has promised that it will re-up the bill, further extending the five-year kerfuffle surrounding the project.

“[The Left] has made it into a litmus test, a drawn line in the sand about global climate change,” said Robert Stavins, director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program at Harvard. “And on the Right, it has been turned into a litmus test of whether the administration cares about the nation’s energy security.” (And jobs.)

Countering arguments from environmentalists, the State Department found that the pipeline wouldn’t lead to significant increases of carbon pollution. And the economic boom that Republicans were hoping for wouldn’t be delivered through the 42,000 temporary jobs that the pipeline’s completion would take. 

So, wait a minute – where, exactly, does that leave us at the end of five years of protests?

 “It’s just not a big deal,” Stavins said.

Oh. Glad we could clear that up.

“It’s a consequence of much larger political phenomena and polarization that has taken place,” he added. “It’s just the consequence of that under what used to be the status quo. But now, given the political polarization, any issue in which we can disagree, damnit, we will disagree.”

But what series of unfortunate events led the Keystone pipeline to become a false idol of job creation? How did it earn the ire of the Sierra Club? Here’s a breakdown.


Symbols are an easy way to rally support behind a topic that causes no small number of glazed eyes – the environment. Yes, it’s important, but the whole science thing doesn’t resonate with the American public at large. People only paid attention to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” because it painted a good picture. Sure, you might like unblemished apples, but the DDT it takes to get them will systematically murder sweet, chirping birds. See? It’s visceral cause and effect.

But back in 2011 there weren’t many cute animals to get excited about, and legislators were dragging their feet. So what is an environmentalist who feels shut out by Congress to do? Find something that seems icky – something like tar sands – and make it a central part of the conversation. And lo and behold, there was the Keystone XL pipeline!

Many critics also seized on the size and land coverage of the pipeline as the legislation progressed. Accidents like the 2013 Exxon spill that leaked thousands of barrels of crude into Arkansas became a cautionary tale for the half dozen states the Keystone expansion would cover.

It also gave environmentalists leverage. Unlike the stalled climate legislation, Obama would have the final say on the project, so the pipeline’s opponents could use it as a way to bully him into keeping his promise to save the planet. That, or guilt him with their campaign contributions, which favored Democratic candidates. Maybe it wouldn’t be a huge environmental triumph, but it would be something.


The conservative symbolism in this can be summed up by … yet another symbol: $$$$$$

Early forecasts said that the pipeline would create anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 jobs, and with that the job-creation message was off and running. Again, this put pressure back on the president not to pass up what the GOP touted as a no-brainer opportunity to employ Americans.

But conservatives, linked by the wallet chain to big oil, were also inclined to support a bill that benefited the very people who pump money into their coffers. According to Open Secrets, 90 percent of industry contributions in the 2012 election cycle went to the GOP. Exxon money is a lot louder than angry protestors.

And although it can be hard to remember in this Golden Age of Cheap Gas, there was a time when soaring gas prices stoked the energy security debate. In 2011, the year the Keystone debate started to gain traction, gas prices hit five-year highs. According to the American Petroleum Institute, by 2030 the expansion could double what the U.S. currently imports from the Persian Gulf, which would significantly ease the U.S. dependence on oil.

So the conservative symbol was a golden cash cow, but also one that the public could get behind. Sixty percent of respondents in a January 2015 CBS News poll said that they favored the Keystone pipeline, a high mark in public opinion about the pipeline.

[Also by Abby Johnston: How the Obamas won the Internet]

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