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A Pipeline Splits the Party


The Keystone XL pipeline has been a hot topic of debate since it was first proposed by the Canadian oil giant TransCanada last year. More than 1,200 people who oppose the massive, 1,700-mile pipeline were arrested in demonstrations in Washington, D.C. last fall, including prominent environmentalists, movie stars and citizens who fear both the pipeline’s contribution to global warming and the potential for serious, long-term pollution. Last week, President Obama chose not to approve the project as currently proposed, a decision that has split Democratic officeholders and constituency groups in an already challenging election year.

The proposed pipeline would run from the tar sands oil production facilities in Alberta across Montana and then south all the way to Gulf Coast refineries. The controversies surrounding it range from the destruction of boreal forests, impacts on both Canadian and American Indians and the final destination of the refined petroleum products, which are by no means guaranteed to stay in the U.S.

Perhaps the single greatest concern regarding the route was the section that passed over Nebraska’s Sand Hills, which lie above the massive Ogallala Aquifer, upon which millions of people rely for drinking and irrigation water.

Obama had wanted to postpone his decision on Keystone XL until after the November elections, but it was forced upon him by Congress via a rider on the bill to extend unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut. Ironically, that bill passed the Democratic-controlled Senate on a 97-3 vote, with Senators Jon Tester and Max Baucus, both Democrats, in favor.

Tester and Baucus, as well as Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, have been over-the-top vocal in their support for the pipeline, primarily as a jobs creator. Add to that the equally vocal support from Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Attorney General Steve Bullock and a host of other Democratic candidates and officeholders. Likewise, the project has received union support both in Montana and nationally.

Those lined up against the pipeline, however, are primarily constituencies that are normally supporters of Democrats. Besides a huge number of environmental groups, the pipeline is also being opposed, through a variety of groups, by farmers, ranchers and landowners along the route. Most recently, Montana state Senator Jonathan Windy Boy, a Democrat, penned an op-ed column praising the Obama decision and highlighting opposition from a coalition of tribal historic preservation offices, which are concerned about historic sites along the proposed pipeline route. Indians by and large have been an important Democratic constituency and are credited for Jon Tester’s narrow win in his bid for the Senate six years ago.

Adding to the debate is the serious question of just how many jobs the pipeline will actually generate and how many of those jobs will be permanent. A hilarious short video on YouTube titled “To Infinity And Beyond: Keystone XL Jobs Claims Spill All Over The Map” illustrates the wildly fluctuating estimates, which go from thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands to even a million jobs. The video, which was produced by Media Matters, ends with TransCanada Vice President Robert Jones telling CNN it would create “hundreds, but certainly not thousands [of jobs], because those are construction jobs.”

If Obama’s decision were final, the controversy would be over and the impact, while causing discord among Democrats and their support groups, would likely be minimal. But it’s not.

The bill to extend unemployment benefits and payroll tax cuts that Congress passed in December was a short-term measure that expires next month. Already the leaders of the Republican-controlled House have announced that they will once again tie Keystone XL approval to any measure further extending the benefits and cuts.

That puts Democrats in a tough spot.

The old “jobs versus the environment” debate is once again rearing its ugly head and Keystone XL appears to be the focal point. Given the state of the economy, it’s easy for many Democrats to jump on the jobs bandwagon and take their environmental constituents for granted as they have before. After all, goes that logic, who are the environmentalists going to vote for if not Democrats? But that game has been played many times and this time around it includes the tribal constituencies, some of whom, in recent years, have in fact decided to vote for someone other than Democrats, and could again.

In the meantime, it sets up a quandary for folks like Tester, who’s running for re-election in a tough battle with Rehberg. It could play an equally large part in Bullock’s campaign for governor. Putting both environmentalists and tribes on the block for a foreign-owned pipeline to mostly ship Canadian tar sands oil for possible export doesn’t seem like the most prudent course in what are expected to be close races in November.

Yet how can Tester, Baucus or Bullock credibly withdraw their former support for the pipeline? They could admit that the number of jobs the pipeline will create is much less than the ridiculous estimates upon which they formerly based their support. They could admit that there’s no guarantee whatsoever for the worn-out excuse of “energy independence” and that the oil may actually wind up in China. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Elected officials are loath to ever admit they made a mistake. The higher up the ladder you go, the worse it is. Of that, Iraq and Afghanistan provide indisputable evidence.

In the same week in which Obama gives his prime-time State of the Union address, Democrats have a tough decision to make with potentially huge consequences. They can support Keystone XL, with its environmental uncertainties and supposed jobs, or they can risk the strategic blunder of a split party.

George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent, where this column originally ran. He lives in Helena, Montana. He can be reached at:

George Ochenski was a long-time environmental lobbyist at the Montana Legislature and is a columnist whose work has appeared in CounterPunch over many years.

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