Clinton stance on XL Pipeline reflects muscle of climate activists

Hearing it from supporters: attendee at Clinton rally in New Hampshire expresses opposition to Keystone pipeline. Brian Synder/Reuters

Hillary Clinton this week announced her opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. She also revealed a plan to improve the country’s energy infrastructure and proposed a partnership with Canada and Mexico to reduce carbon emissions.

After years of refusing to stake out a clear position on Keystone, she declared during a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa, that the pipeline was:

a distraction from the important work we have to do to combat climate change. And, unfortunately, from my perspective, one that interferes with our ability to move forward to deal with all the other issues. Therefore, I oppose it.

The near-term political significance of Clinton’s opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline is modest. But it highlights the growing prominence of “supply side” arguments in climate policy debates to push energy policy toward limiting development of fossil fuels.

The decision on Keystone XL

It has now been over six years since the TransCanada Corporation applied to the US State Department for a permit to complete construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. If built, the pipeline would enable the transport of tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to US refineries in the Midwest and Gulf Coast. Infrastructure projects often engender local opposition, particularly NIMBY reactions from project abutters, but the Keystone XL has stirred national controversy, and the Obama administration has yet to make a final decision on the permit.

Proponents and opponents have vigorously debated Keystone XL. Supporters, led by the oil and gas industry, congressional Republicans and some moderate Democrats, tout the pipeline’s potential economic benefits, particularly the thousands of construction jobs they argue it would create. In addition, supporters contend that the project will greatly enhance US energy security.

Those opposed to Keystone XL, led by many in the environmental community and most congressional Democrats, highlight the implications for the environment, particularly for climate change. Their central argument is that tar sands oil in Alberta has a larger carbon footprint than other types of oil, and, for that reason, its approval – in the words of climate scientist turned activist James Hansen – would be “game over for the climate.”

University of Texas Austin, Author provided

The claims on both sides are exaggerated, but, setting aside the debate on the relative merits and demerits of the project, the Keystone XL pipeline has taken on immense political significance. Similar to debates in the 1990s and 2000s about whether to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development, the environmental groups, particularly climate activists, have drawn a line in the sand on the pipeline.

Without question, this pressure has contributed to the long delay in the Obama administration’s decision and perhaps an eventual disapproval. President Obama has already gone as far as vetoing a congressional bill that would have greenlighted the project.

Short-term significance

The significance of Clinton’s opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline is likely quite modest in the short term. The other main candidates for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, have each already declared their opposition to the pipeline (for their part, Jim Webb supports it and Lincoln Chafee has yet to take a position). So Clinton’s announcement on Tuesday does not distinguish her from her immediate competitors.

Clinton interrupted during a recent campaign stop. Jim Synder/Reuters

And, regardless of her position on Keystone XL, the difference between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates on energy and climate change is already stark. With respect to public opinion, Americans generally support the pipeline, but it is not a front burner issue for most citizens, so Clinton’s position is unlikely to affect her standing one way or the other with voters.

However, her announcement may have some more tangible benefits for her campaign, particularly in a general election should she win the Democratic nomination. Climate activists such as Bill McKibben of 350.org and Tom Steyer of NextGen Climate have led the charge against the Keystone XL pipeline, and Clinton’s newly expressed opposition increases the likelihood that these influential voices will actively support her campaign. Such support might translate into on-the-ground volunteers and supportive SuperPAC-financed television advertising.

Beyond 2016 election

Notwithstanding these modest near-term effects, Clinton’s opposition to Keystone XL also serves to lend greater credibility to climate activists’ growing “supply side” argument regarding climate change. President Obama has received a lot of praise for his climate policies, such as the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, federal investment in renewable energy and strengthened fuel economy standards.

Yet he has also been criticized for not curtailing oil, gas and coal development on federal land, most recently exemplified by his decision to allow Shell Oil to explore in the Arctic Ocean. Increasingly, environmental groups are pushing President Obama to impose these types of supply-side restrictions on fossil fuel development, and their calls for such policies will only grow louder should Clinton win the presidency.

Clinton has already voiced disagreement with President Obama’s approval of Shell Oil’s current endeavors in the Arctic Ocean, which suggests that she may be ready to move policy in this direction. Yet, in an announcement intended to amplify her decision about Keystone XL, Clinton focused her attention instead on the need to upgrade the nation’s energy infrastructure to prevent spills from oil pipelines and rail accidents and to enhance the security and reliability of the electric grid. She also proposed establishing a “North American Climate Compact” among the United States, Canada and Mexico that would set new national targets on carbon dioxide emissions.

While these are all laudable goals, they do not address the fundamental issues being raised by leading environmental activists, who are advocating for policies to keep fossil fuels in the ground altogether. Climate activists are unlikely to let Clinton off the hook on these supply-side questions, and her high-profile announcement regarding the Keystone XL pipeline is likely to only increase the urgency with which they will expect answers.