CQ WEEKLY – IN FOCUS
Nov. 5, 2011 – 11:42 a.m.
Getting Stuck in the Pipeline
By Margaret Kriz Hobson, CQ Staff
It’s been a tough year for the nation’s top environmental groups. After failing to persuade the previous Congress to adopt ambitious climate change legislation, environmentalists watched President Obama reject or delay many of their air pollution priorities at the insistence of conservatives in Congress.
Now a newly re-energized environmental movement is rebuilding momentum, based on a national campaign to block construction of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, a second route to carry oil from Canada’s tar sands region, this one extending to the Texas coast.
The $7 billion, 1,700-mile pipeline has been under review since 2008 by the State Department, which issues permits to projects that cross international borders. In August, department officials promised to complete work on the pipeline application by the end of the year. But last week, Obama said he, not the State Department, will make the final call on the pipeline “in several months.”
The issue puts the president in a squeeze between two groups that were vital to his 2008 victory: environmentalists and labor unions, which see the pipeline as a source of jobs.
To fight the project, the national environmental groups are returning to their grass roots, joining forces with Midwestern farmers, land owners, local activists and students who fear that a pipeline spill could contaminate the massive Ogallala Aquifer, which provides irrigation and drinking water to the central plains states.
“This has become a real firestorm on the ground,” says Lena Moffitt, Washington representative for dirty fuels at the Sierra Club.
The opponents warn that extracting more oil from Canada’s tar sands region would produce high levels of greenhouse gas emissions — the equivalent, they claim, of adding 5 million cars to U.S. highways.
The national environmental groups have gained access to State Department records that they say prove regulators have become too cozy with TransCanada and can’t be trusted to make an objective ruling on the project. They’ve been backed by congressional liberals who recently called for the project to be delayed until the State Department’s inspector general investigates allegations (disputed by the department) of conflict of interest between department regulators and industry lobbyists.
Blocking the pipeline has become a rallying cry for left-leaning activists. “The pipeline represents a real choice that we have to make right now in our country about whether we’re serious about clean energy or whether we’re willing to put up with dirty energy,” said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s international program.
After aggressively mobilizing students and activists to support Obama in 2008, the progressive groups now say they’re not feeling the love from Obama and might take a back seat for 2012. “I can say that we don’t think we’ll be able to effectively mobilize our members in the 2012 election cycle until the president stands up to big polluters,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a recent telephone conference with reporters.
The industry argues that TransCanada has gone beyond federal requirements to ensure that the project will not harm Midwestern lands and water supplies. “These aren’t new concerns,” says Marty Durbin, executive vice president of the American Petroleum Institute. “These are the same concerns that have been raised and answered over and over again in the State Department process for more than three years now.”
Getting Stuck in the Pipeline
Pipeline backers say the project would provide a more secure source of oil to the United States and thousands of jobs for local workers. The Keystone XL project is part of a large network of pipelines proposed by TransCanada to link the company’s Alberta facility to oil terminals in the Midwest and along the Texas coast. The first leg of the pipeline complex — Keystone 1 — was completed in 2010 and is already carrying oil to refineries in the Midwest. During its first year of operations, the pipeline suffered more than a dozen leaks.
The second pipeline, Keystone XL, would take a more direct path from Alberta through Nebraska’s Sandhills region and extend transmission to Port Arthur, Texas.
The AFL-CIO and other labor groups back the new route. They have run ads attacking environmentalists and Hollywood celebrities who oppose the pipeline.
TransCanada officials say that if the State Department delays approval of the pipeline permit until next year, the company will most likely expand its tar sands extraction project anyway, with the delay costing the company $1 million a day.
Charles K. Ebinger, director of the Brookings Institution’s energy security initiative, predicts that the White House will eventually approve the pipeline. “When I look at the volume of oil that’s involved, it’s not going to stay in the ground,” Ebinger says. “And when I look at the jobs and the fact that this would be a secure source of crude for the U.S. Gulf Coast refineries, I think the president will finally approve it.”
A rejection, Ebinger says, would damage U.S. relations with the Canadian government, which is heavily backing the project. “Canada is our single biggest oil supplier,” Ebinger notes. “We’re talking about a major trading partner, one that’s been one of our best allies in the world. The Canadians will take it very badly if we blow this.”
Fearful of getting caught in the political crossfire, most Democrats in Congress have been reluctant to speak out against the TransCanada project.
Pipeline opponents suffered a serious defeat this summer when 47 House Democrats joined Republicans in passing legislation that would have forced the Obama administration to decide by Nov. 1 whether to allow construction. Environmentalists say they lost Democratic votes largely because the measure went to the House floor shortly after four unions announced their support for the pipeline. The measure never gained momentum in the Senate.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman
In October, Senate Majority Leader
The most serious opposition has come from the Nebraska delegation, where Democrats and Republicans have been calling for TransCanada to reroute the pipeline away from the environmentally sensitive Sandhills region. Nebraska Sens.
Nebraska’s GOP Gov.
Meanwhile, environmentalists warn that until Obama rejects the pipeline application, they’ll continue to organize protests at his public appearances and campaign events. In October, for example, a group of Democratic donors made local news when they protested the pipeline at a San Francisco fundraiser.
Getting Stuck in the Pipeline
As the Keystone XL campaign has gained momentum, environmental activists have been identifying other coal and oil projects to oppose. “This is not something where we’re in it just for this one pipeline,” says Casey-Lefkowitz. “We are in a campaign against expansion of these ever higher-carbon, riskier, dirtier fuels, whether they are oil shale or turning coal into liquid fuel.”
Brookings’ Ebinger says Obama faces a no-win situation in taking on the decision. Approving the pipeline “will cost him very dearly with the environmental community.”
FOR FURTHER READING:
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