How to Make Keystone XL a Political Winner

Yesterday I talked about how the Keystone Pipeline will have no effect on reducing or preventing global climate change. Beyond that, though, it’s a political loser for the Left. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that among people who have heard of the issue, 66 percent support the pipeline while only 23 percent believe that it should not be built. Although another poll was funded by industry groups it actually ended up finding similar events. In short, this is an issue that resonates extremely with a small group at the political margins but does not have the type of broad public support that might sway the Obama administration’s decision. Indeed, by allowing themselves to be arrested multiple times for protesting outside the White House, opponents of the pipeline risk being labelled as radical and losing public sympathy with an American public that does care about global climate change but would prefer to see it addressed in a more harmonious fashion.

While comparisons to the civil rights movement have been bandied around on environmental blogs, it seems unlikely that the majority of Americans will see the comparison between the construction of a single pipeline and the systemic oppression of an entire race. To compare the two feels artificial and insulting. Global warming does have the possibility of denying opportunities to future generations, especially in the developing world. But the pipeline has little to do with this because Canada is determined to get the oil sands to market. Paradoxically, if activists succeed in raising the price of oil it will make this development even more inevitable.

The best way for the President to benefit from the Keystone XL pipeline is to withhold approval of the project just long enough to trade for something. Maybe he could put it in part of a larger infrastructure in the Midwest, getting some more stimulus in the form of construction jobs. Or maybe he could use it as part of a larger energy plan, exchanging his approval for Republican support of long-term (instead of annual) production tax credits for wind, solar, and offshore sources of renewable energy. It would be more than a fair trade. The states that the pipeline would run through have overwhelmingly Republican elected delegations eager for jobs. They, too, stand to benefit from spending on renewable energy production in states rich in wind and solar resources. The President would get to look both bipartisan and pro-job.

If he doesn’t approve the pipeline, on the other hand, he would be seen as capitulating to a vocal, radical majority who prefer arrest to the democratic process. He would be seen as anti-job throughout the Midwest and would be throwing away a valuable bargaining chip. It’s possible that anti-pipeline activists would attempt to withdraw future support for his agenda. But they have no other alternative within the political system. They’ll find little sympathy in the opposition. The President is not up for reelection. Maybe they’ll motivate to push liberal candidates in the midterms, but that could only have a positive effect. An environmental movement that got more Democrats elected to Congress would gain much more political clout. And that, after all, is how democracy is supposed to work.

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