Pipeline Politics: How an Oil Sands Project Has Become Key to Environmentalism

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Speaker of the House John Boehner speaks after passage of legislation to extend Social Security payroll tax cuts, which also included a measure to quickly move ahead with the controversial Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

Given that there are already more than 2.3 million miles of pipelines in the U.S.—carrying petroleum products, chemicals and natural gas—it might seem odd that so much political energy has been expended on a proposed 1,700-mile pipeline. Yet the controversial Keystone XL pipeline—which would cross the upper Midwest to carry crude from Canadian oil sands down to refiners in the U.S.—has become the single biggest environmental issue facing America. Green groups—pushed hard by activists like’s Bill McKibben—are using the proposed pipeline as a litmus test for President Obama’s often-questioned commitment to the environment. They argue that Keystone XL would pose a threat to valuable aquifers in Nebraska, but more than that, they believe that allowing the pipeline to go forward would open the path to the increased development of carbon-intensive oil sands, and keep the U.S. committed to fossil fuels, with disastrous consequences for climate change.

President Obama seemed to defuse the Keystone question back in November, when he decided to delay a decision on the proposed pipeline until 2013—conveniently after next year’s elections. But Keystone XL isn’t just an environmental issue—it’s now a central political one as well, with ramifications for the U.S. economy and for President Obama’s reelection hopes.

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That’s because Congressional Republicans—nearly all of whom support the pipeline, citing the potential for new jobs and more oil from a friendly North American ally (and petrostate)—have moved to tie approval for a continued payroll tax cut to an expedited decision on Keystone XL. The House passed a measure last week that keeps payroll tax cut through next year, and the Senate passed a bill that would continue the payroll tax for the next two months—important to keep a faltering recovery going. It’s not clear how the bills will be reconciled, but both would require President Obama to make a final decision on the pipeline within 60 days, as House Speaker John Boehner put it on Meet the Press on Sunday:

This is the right thing to do, the American people support it. The president shouldn’t continue to put this off for his own election convenience…

This was about to be approved last summer, so waiting and waiting and waiting is not the answer here. It is time to proceed with the pipeline.

Meanwhile Republican presidential candidates are already using Keystone XL to hammer President Obama, as Michele Bachmann said in last week’s debate in Iowa:

This pipeline is one that would have brought at least 20,000 jobs, at least $6.5 billion worth of economic activity. His entire calculus was based upon his reelection effort. Because quite frankly, the radical environmentalists said to President Obama, you pass Keystone, we’re not going to do your volunteer door-to-door work.

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Bachmann does have a point—though not on the economic value of the pipeline, which independent studies argue might create at most 6,500 temporary jobs, and perhaps as few as 50 permanent positions. (I believe the word for what she did there is “lie.”) Environmentalists were quite clear this summer that Keystone XL was a make-or-break issue for them, and that if Obama did allow the pipeline to go forward, he should prepare for far less green support in 2012. And they expect Obama—who had earlier threatened to veto any bill forcing his hand on Keystone—to stand firm again, as Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote in a blog post Sunday:

The president recognizes this pipeline project must not be rushed. He also wants to give Americans tax relief right now. He will sign the bill to deliver those tax benefits. But the bill leaves him no choice but to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.

That is what Americans from across the nation have been demanding for months.Ranchers, farmersreligious leadersbusiness executivesunion membersmajor campaign donors, and the more than 10,000 people who encircled the White House on November 6 have all been saying the same thing: a tar sands oil pipeline is bad for America.

The early signs are that Obama would reject the pipeline if a bill forces him to decide on the pipeline immediately, as National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling said on Sunday:

The experts at the State Department . . . made clear before this legislation was even voted on that, if they were only given 60 days to look at alternative routes in Nebraska and do the serious environmental and health reviews, that that would [not] be enough time and would make it almost certainly impossible to extend that permit.

Politically, though, Republicans may win either way. If Obama flip-flops and decides to let the Keystone XL pipeline move forward, they get their way and make the President look bad in the eyes of his green base. But if Obama does indeed decide to block the pipeline before the election, they can hammer him for choosing the environment over the economy—not something a President up for reelection wants to be seen doing when the unemployment rate is still north of 8.5%.

MORE: Greens and the Oil Sands Pipeline

Nor does it help that while Keystone XL has become a touchstone for hardcore greens—and for Nebraskans of both parties who live along the proposed pipeline route—it’s far less clear that the average American cares all that much. A November 23 poll by Rasmussen—which does tend to lean conservative—found that 60% of likely voters were at least somewhat in support of the pipeline, with 24% opposed.

If Republicans do indeed force Obama’s hand and make him decide on the pipeline soon, I can’t see him approving him—not when he can simply say that he hasn’t been given enough time to study it. (And given that, I find it a bit odd that TransCanada—the company that would build the pipeline—isn’t telling its Republican allies in Congress to back off.) Environmentalists will rightly count it as a win.

But greens should be cautious. In a smart piece for the New York Times, Leslie Kaufman surveys the politically wounded environmental movement, and notes that greens—after spending much of the last decades making alliances with big corporations and fighting for major climate legislation—are refocusing their efforts, fighting fossil fuel development plant by plant on a local basis. (I identified some of these shifts in pieces earlier this year, including here and here.). As Kaufman writes:

On the strategy front, some of these groups are becoming more circumspect in campaigning against global warming, mindful of mixed public sentiment. A three-prong approach is emerging: fight global warming by focusing on immediate, local concerns; reinvigorate the grass roots through social media and street protests; and renew an emphasis on influencing elections.

That’s smart, if only because climate legislation is doomed and the corporate alliances—like the Sierra Club’s deal with Clorox, set to expire under new president Michael Brune—diluted the brand. But there’s a major challenge ahead for environmentalists. Thanks to shale oil and shale gas, the U.S. mainland could be on the edge of a major fossil-fuel production boom. It won’t be anywhere near enough to get the U.S. off foreign oil alone—ignore anyone dumb enough to say that—but it will be a boon for the economy and for jobs, even as it does increase greenhouse gases. If you doubt that, just visit North Dakota, where unemployment is at 3% thanks to massive oil and natural gas production.

Over the last decade, mainstream environmental groups  did everything they could to fight the old perception that being green meant being anti-business and anti-growth. But that will be much harder to do if the new strategy sees greens fighting domestic oil and gas projects, developments that—at least a little bit—would enhance U.S. energy security and provide well-paying jobs. The young grassroots that cares deeply about climate change will be energized, as will the people in states like Pennsylvania and New York that are being directly impacted by drilling—but what will middle Americans who worry full-time about the economy think?

Environmentalists don’t want to win the Keystone battle—and lose the war.

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Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME