Keystone XL Opposition: A Case Study in What’s Wrong with Washington

The debate over the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline—the infrastructure project to carry oil from Canada to the US—has been a fascinating glimpse into the sausage-making of the legislative process.

The merits of the policy are in little doubt – report after report by the State Department has found that the pipeline poses little ecological threat and will do nothing to expand greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, allowing the pipeline to the U.S. may actually reduce the world’s carbon footprint by preventing the need to ship the oil by train across Canada, by boat across the Pacific, to China, where it will be used under much looser pollution regulations.

Although the project itself may be relatively clean the politics behind it are dirty. In 2011, President Obama purposefully delayed the project until after the 2012 presidential elections to avoid having to take a stand on the issue. The president gave the flimsy excuse was that he didn’t like the route the pipeline would travel. So TransCanada offered to change the route. The Washington Post said at the time:

We almost hope this was a political call because, on the substance, there should be no question. Without the pipeline, Canada would still export its bitumen — with long-term trends in the global market, it’s far too valuable to keep in the ground — but it would go to China. And, as a State Department report found, U.S. refineries would still import low-quality crude — just from the Middle East. Stopping the pipeline, then, wouldn’t do anything to reduce global warming, but it would almost certainly require more oil to be transported across oceans in tankers.

Then President Obama said that he could not support it unless there was a guarantee that it would not impact greenhouse gas emissions. And unfortunately for him the State Department came out with a study finding that “the project would not accelerate global greenhouse gas emissions or significantly harm the natural habitats along its route.”

Nevertheless, the president again announced an indefinite delay in the project, likely punting a final decision until after November’s midterm election. Despite the huge number of foregone jobs and economic growth that the project would have brought, all the left could see was politics. An article in the Rolling Stone actually has one of the leaders of the anti-pipeline movement calling the plan a “pretty brilliant move” because it “will give red state Democrats like Mary Landrieu and Mark Begich an easy and highly theatrical way to distance themselves from the president in the mid-terms as well as a rallying point for oil and gas money to support them.”

There’s also another reason President Obama and Senate Democrats were so willing to delay a roundly-lauded project. That reason is a man named Tom Steyer. Steyer is a liberal billionaire who made his money as a hedge fund manager and he’s publicly stated his intent to spend $100 million—in this election cycle alone—to support anti-Keystone candidates.

The Washington Post recently said that Steyer doesn’t need “an official government perch to make an impact” because “his wealth and political connections” allow him to play a “critical behind-the-scenes role in helping shape the country’s national energy policy.” In other words, he’s the man behind the curtain making the decisions, and his single viewpoint is apparently worth more than the vast majority of Americans who support the project.

Steyer’s clout with Senate Democrats was on full display this past week in the Senate as Harry Reid worked feverishly to put the finishing touches on their Keystone plot – stop the project while protecting vulnerable Democrats. CNN reported:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Keystone opponent, surprised many when he said last week he was open to allowing a vote on the legislation in the coming days.

But now his strategy is becoming clearer – allow a vote that would fail in the Senate, but succeed in giving political cover to some of his most endangered Democratic colleagues – those who if they lose in November could mean a Republican takeover of the Senate.

Ultimately, that vote didn’t happen. But Reid’s willingness to orchestrate a fake vote, which he knew would fail, in order to help red-state Democrats and collect $100 million from a donor, should still tell you everything you need to know about this Senate.