Keystone vs. Climate Change

Green groups hate the XL pipeline project — so why are they backing lawmakers who support it?

Workers remove a large clamp from a section of pipe during construction of the Gulf Coast Project pipeline in Prague, Oklahoma, U.S., on Monday, March 11, 2013. The Gulf Coast Project, a 485-mile crude oil pipeline being constructed by TransCanada Corp., is part of the Keystone XL Pipeline Project and will run from Cushing, Oklahoma to Nederland, Texas. 
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Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
May 1, 2014, 5 p.m.

Block­ing the Key­stone XL pipeline may be the green move­ment’s top talk­ing point, but it isn’t en­vir­on­ment­al groups’ top polit­ic­al pri­or­ity.

The Si­erra Club and the Nat­ur­al Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil’s polit­ic­al fund are back­ing Sen. Kay Hagan of North Car­o­lina, who is locked in a tough reelec­tion fight — and who fa­vors the pipeline. The NRDC Ac­tion Fund is also throw­ing its weight be­hind Sen. Mark Be­gich, a pro-Key­stone Demo­crat try­ing to hold on to a fiercely con­tested seat in Alaska. And last year, ac­cord­ing to the Sun­light Found­a­tion, the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters con­trib­uted thou­sands of dol­lars to both.

Why? Both sen­at­ors back the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency’s reg­u­la­tions that re­quire power plants to cut their car­bon emis­sions — Pres­id­ent Obama’s most power­ful tool left in the fight against cli­mate change.

Need more proof? Demo­crats Mary Lan­drieu of Louisi­ana and Mark Pry­or of Arkan­sas hold sim­il­arly pre­cari­ous Sen­ate seats, but they’ve both voted to block the EPA rules. Neither sen­at­or has seen an en­dorse­ment or a cent in cam­paign cash from the green move­ment’s heavy hit­ters.

“The pres­id­ent’s plan to con­trol car­bon pol­lu­tion is the biggest pri­or­ity not just for us but for all en­vir­on­ment­al groups,” said Josh Saks, seni­or ad­viser for the Na­tion­al Wild­life Fed­er­a­tion Ac­tion Fund. “With a House and Sen­ate not sup­port­ive of that plan, the rules will not con­tin­ue.”

The en­vir­on­ment­al lobby’s cli­mate-first pri­or­ity list re­flects a com­bin­a­tion of polit­ic­al strategy and car­bon ac­count­ing.

The Demo­crats’ Sen­ate ma­jor­ity has been a bul­wark against a string of Re­pub­lic­an at­tacks on Obama’s cli­mate rules — as well as a host of oth­er en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tions. By at­tempt­ing to keep that cli­mate caucus sol­id, green groups are work­ing to pro­tect the policies they be­lieve will do the most to ad­dress glob­al warm­ing.

The rest comes down to simple car­bon math: Power plants are the largest un­reg­u­lated source of car­bon emis­sions in the Amer­ic­an eco­nomy — and the EPA reg­u­la­tions’ po­ten­tial to cut back on green­house-gas emis­sions is far great­er than the pipeline’s po­ten­tial to pro­duce them. In 2012, the agency es­tim­ated that the U.S. churned out roughly 5.4 bil­lion met­ric tons of car­bon di­ox­ide. Of this total, power plants con­trib­uted ap­prox­im­ately 2 bil­lion met­ric tons. In con­trast, the agency es­tim­ates that Key­stone would add an ad­di­tion­al 18.7 mil­lion met­ric tons an­nu­ally.

So if look­ing the oth­er way on Key­stone is what it takes to pro­tect the cli­mate rules, en­vir­on­ment­al groups are will­ing to do just that.

But that doesn’t mean they’re go­ing to throw money at every Demo­crat who comes along. The en­vir­on­ment­al move­ment wants a Sen­ate that will make the cli­mate rules stick.

“Our stated goal is to grow the en­vir­on­ment­al ma­jor­ity,” said Heath­er Taylor-Miesle, the NRDC Ac­tion Fund’s dir­ect­or. “We’re not go­ing to make our de­cisions based on party; we’re go­ing to make them based on where someone stands on our most im­port­ant is­sues.”

None of this is to say that en­vir­on­ment­al groups don’t care about Key­stone. They’ve made it their ral­ly­ing cry. Thou­sands of act­iv­ists des­cen­ded on Wash­ing­ton last week to protest the pipeline, and they’ve put much of their polit­ic­al clout on the line in a bid to per­suade Obama to block the pro­ject. And it’s the pipeline — not the EPA reg­u­la­tions — that has re­in­vig­or­ated a move­ment that was badly wounded in the wake of the cli­mate bill’s col­lapse in 2010.

Opin­ions abound as to why the ef­fort to cre­ate a car­bon tax failed, but a ma­jor cri­ti­cism leveled at green groups was that they fo­cused on try­ing to win over Wash­ing­ton in­siders at the ex­pense of build­ing a groundswell of grass­roots sup­port. The mod­ern-day move­ment is de­term­ined not to make the same mis­take — and Key­stone has be­come the most ef­fect­ive tool to en­er­gize and ex­pand its base.

“Key­stone has got­ten more people in­to the streets than any oth­er is­sue in the past few dec­ades,” said Jam­ie Henn, a spokes­man for 350.org. “It’s been in­cred­ible in terms of help­ing to mo­bil­ize a pub­lic move­ment on cli­mate change, and right now it’s im­port­ant to build that move­ment.”

350.org is one ma­jor green group that has made Key­stone its biggest cause and is do­ing everything it can to rally sup­port­ers against the pipeline. But the or­gan­iz­a­tion doesn’t plan to donate to cam­paigns, and it has chosen to zero in on the pipeline se­cure in the know­ledge that the en­vir­on­ment­al lobby will at­tend to the cli­mate battle on Cap­it­ol Hill.

Green groups have learned the hard way that they need is­sues like Key­stone to keep the grass­roots en­gaged. But in the end, de­fend­ing the pres­id­ent’s cli­mate rules trumps the polit­ics of the pipeline.

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