Democrats fighting to maintain control of the Senate face a new dilemma this election year: Wealthy donors are funding candidates who oppose the Keystone XL oil pipeline. But those Democrats whose seats are most vulnerable to Republicans actually support the project.
Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and John Walsh of Montana—all Keystone boosters—face strong Republican challengers in energy-producing states where President Barack Obama lost to Mitt Romney in 2012. Just a few such losses could help transfer the Senate to Republican control.
Tom Steyer, a billionaire environmentalist dead-set against the Keystone, has pledged to use his money to make climate change and the pipeline the top issues of this election cycle. He plans to channel $100 million—half from his own accounts—to Democrats who stump on the issue. A former hedge fund manager, Steyer spent more than $10 million last year to help elect Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass.
“It's really, really important from a climate perspective that we maintain control of the Senate for Democrats,” said Chris Lehane, Steyer's strategy advisor.
But Americans of all political stripes support the Keystone pipeline. Mirroring prior Pew survey results, the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows 65 percent of respondents believe the $5.3 billion project is crucial to developing North American energy production and security.
Many Republicans believe the president may delay a decision on Keystone until after the November mid-term elections, since he once indicated a decision would come by the end of 2013, following a fifth environmental study.
When the period of public comment drew to a close earlier this month, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which supports the project, divulged that half of the 2 million comments in opposition to the pipeline came from foreign nationals. Most were funneled through Avaaz, a massive online liberal advocacy group which calls Keystone “a fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.”
Proponents say the question is not whether oil will be produced but where it comes from. Canada and the U.S. Bakken region will produce and sell oil, regardless of whether the international pipeline gets constructed down to Oklahoma, its present northern terminus. In the long run, Keystone would reduce dependence on energy imported from unpredictable nations like Venezuela and Nigeria and tap into North American fossil fuel supplies, now known to be the largest in the world.
Last Thursday, Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.“We have the largest stimulus package available to our economy in the form of energy, and this economic injection is not one that is borne by the American taxpayer,” she said.
There are already 19 smaller cross-border pipelines flowing with crude oil. But the “most studied piece of U.S. infrastructure ever” continues to await a presidential permit, even after administration officials conceded in the State Department’s January impact statement the project would cause little environmental impact. Transporting the oil by rail or truck would cause greater environmental and carbon impact than the pipeline, the report noted.
In Indonesia last month, Secretary of State John Kerry called climate change “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction” in a speech reported by Reuters. Kerry will eventually announce the president’s decision on the trans-national pipeline project, but some senators may face electoral destruction the if the pipeline gets nixed.