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. 
Bloomberg via Getty Images
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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