Hillary Clinton Comes Out Against the Keystone Pipeline, After Long Avoiding a Position

The Democratic front-runner has been wary of going public with a position during her campaign. Until now.

Hillary Clinton attends the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's 45th Annual Legislative Conference in Washington on Sept. 19.
Add to Briefcase
Ben Geman
Sept. 22, 2015, 4:29 p.m.

Hil­lary Clin­ton said Tues­day that she op­poses con­struc­tion of the Key­stone XL oil-sands pipeline, an an­nounce­ment that ends years of de­clin­ing to weigh in on the con­tro­ver­sial pro­ject, which en­vir­on­ment­al­ists are bat­tling hard to de­feat.

Clin­ton’s com­ments came just as most of Wash­ing­ton’s at­ten­tion was turned to the ar­rival of Pope Fran­cis in D.C. Ac­cord­ing to a copy of her re­marks provided by her cam­paign, Clin­ton said, “I think it is im­per­at­ive that we look at the Key­stone Pipeline as what I be­lieve it is—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.”

Clin­ton’s an­swer came in re­sponse to a ques­tion from a Drake Uni­versity stu­dent who said that cli­mate change was an im­port­ant is­sue for her, and that she op­posed the Key­stone XL pipeline be­cause of it.

The rev­el­a­tion of her po­s­i­tion in Iowa will likely help the Demo­crat­ic White House can­did­ate cor­ral sup­port among green act­iv­ists, but the pro­ject is sup­por­ted by a large num­ber of labor uni­ons, an­oth­er key part of the Demo­crat­ic base. Speak­ing to jobs spe­cific­ally Tues­day, Clin­ton said she wants to im­ple­ment a policy that would “put thou­sands of Amer­ic­ans to work” fix­ing old, leaky pipelines and re­pair­ing rail­cars, rail beds, and rail tracks that cur­rently trans­port oil. She said there are “a lot more jobs, from my per­spect­ive, on a North Amer­ic­an clean en­ergy agenda than you would ever get from one pipeline cross­ing the bor­der.”

Hillary Clinton speaks out on Keystone

Tran­sCanada Corp.’s pro­posed mult­i­bil­lion-dol­lar pro­ject to bring crude oil from Al­berta’s oil sands to Gulf Coast re­finer­ies re­mains un­der Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion re­view, but Pres­id­ent Obama has made sev­er­al com­ments crit­ic­al of the pro­ject, fuel­ing wide­spread ex­pect­a­tion that he’ll ul­ti­mately re­ject it.

Clin­ton’s team tipped off the White House that she was about to come out in op­pos­i­tion to the pro­ject, a cam­paign aide said. “The White House was briefed on Clin­ton’s po­s­i­tion on the Key­stone pro­ject pri­or to her com­ments today,” the aide said.

Her cam­paign also said that labor uni­ons knew what was com­ing. “In the course of dis­cuss­ing her plans for in­creas­ing in­vest­ment in en­ergy in­fra­struc­ture with labor of­fi­cials in re­cent weeks, she privately made her op­pos­i­tion to the pipeline known to them as well,” the aide said.

Bernie Sanders and Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, who are both run­ning against Clin­ton for the Demo­crat­ic White House nom­in­a­tion, are already op­pon­ents of the pro­ject that has been at the heart of a high-pro­file battle over cli­mate change and en­ergy dur­ing much of Obama’s pres­id­ency.

The an­nounce­ment is a break with Clin­ton’s pri­or re­sponses in 2014 and this year. For in­stance, in late Ju­ly, Clin­ton re­ferred to the on­go­ing State De­part­ment re­view, stat­ing: “I will re­frain from com­ment­ing be­cause I had a lead­ing role in get­ting that pro­cess star­ted and I think that we have to let it run its course.”

But last week Clin­ton sug­ges­ted she was tir­ing of the long fed­er­al re­view. “I can’t wait too much longer. And I am put­ting the White House on no­tice. I am go­ing to tell you what I think soon be­cause I can’t wait,” she said in New Hamp­shire, ac­cord­ing to mul­tiple re­ports.

The Clin­ton cam­paign aide sought to ex­plain why Clin­ton changed her mind about tak­ing a po­s­i­tion while the State De­part­ment-led re­view of Tran­sCanada’s per­mit ap­plic­a­tion re­mains open.

“As she has said pre­vi­ously, she wanted to re­spect the pres­id­ent’s timetable for mak­ing a de­cision and give her suc­cessor, Sec­ret­ary [John] Kerry, the space to con­duct a thor­ough pro­cess. However, when she launched her cam­paign earli­er this year, she ex­pec­ted a de­cision would have been made be­fore now,” the aide said, adding that Clin­ton “feels she owes it to the Amer­ic­an people to make it clear where she stands.”

Clin­ton’s de­cision marks the second time in re­cent weeks that she has taken a stance pop­u­lar with green act­iv­ists on a con­tro­ver­sial en­ergy is­sue.

In Au­gust, she came out against oil-and-gas drilling in the Arc­tic Ocean off Alaska’s coast, break­ing with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, which has giv­en oil gi­ant Roy­al Dutch Shell per­mis­sion to drill an ex­plor­at­ory well.

Clin­ton’s new Key­stone stance drew quick cheers from en­vir­on­ment­al­ists.

“We are thrilled that Sec­ret­ary Clin­ton has con­tin­ued to build on her long­time en­vir­on­ment­al lead­er­ship by pub­licly op­pos­ing the dirty and dan­ger­ous Key­stone XL tar-sands pipeline. This is ex­actly the kind of lead­er­ship we need in or­der to leave a healthy plan­et for our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren,” said Tiernan Sit­ten­feld of the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters Ac­tion Fund in a state­ment.

But Clin­ton also re­ceived im­me­di­ate at­tacks from the Amer­ic­an Pet­ro­leum In­sti­tute, a power­ful lob­by­ing group that has for years spent heav­ily to pro­mote the pro­ject.

“Hil­lary Clin­ton’s de­cision to op­pose Key­stone is a missed op­por­tun­ity to seize the true po­ten­tial of our en­ergy renais­sance,” said Jack Ger­ard, the group’s pres­id­ent. “It is most un­for­tu­nate for Amer­ic­an work­ers and con­sumers that she has joined the forces of delay and deni­al.”

Sanders, a long­time pro­gress­ive who is giv­ing Clin­ton an un­ex­pec­tedly strong chal­lenge for the nom­in­a­tion, sought to em­phas­ize that he is a long-stand­ing op­pon­ent of the pipeline and that Clin­ton is only now stak­ing out a po­s­i­tion.

The Ver­mont sen­at­or noted that he has “vig­or­ously op­posed the Key­stone pipeline from the be­gin­ning,” adding, “I am glad that Sec­ret­ary Clin­ton fi­nally has made a de­cision and I wel­come her op­pos­i­tion to the pipeline.”

O’Mal­ley also sought to por­tray Clin­ton as a lag­gard. “On is­sue after is­sue—mar­riage equal­ity, drivers li­censes for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants, chil­dren flee­ing vi­ol­ence in Cent­ral Amer­ica, the Syr­i­an refugee crisis, and now the Key­stone Pipeline, Sec­ret­ary Clin­ton has fol­lowed—not forged—pub­lic opin­ion,” the former Mary­land gov­ernor said in com­ments emailed to re­port­ers shortly after Clin­ton an­nounced her stance.

The State De­part­ment is lead­ing the re­view of the pro­ject—which would carry hun­dreds of thou­sands of bar­rels of oil per day—be­cause it crosses an in­ter­na­tion­al bound­ary.

Bey­ond its polit­ic­al im­pact in the Demo­crat­ic primar­ies, Clin­ton’s po­s­i­tion is im­port­ant for the fu­ture of the pro­ject if she’s elec­ted pres­id­ent. Tran­sCanada CEO Russ Girl­ing has said the com­pany will con­tin­ue to seek per­mis­sion to build the pipeline even if Obama re­jects it. Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates for pres­id­ent sup­port the pro­ject.

Tran­sCanada, in a state­ment Tues­day, said the com­pany re­mains fo­cused on win­ning fed­er­al ap­prov­al. “Our fo­cus re­mains on se­cur­ing a per­mit to build Key­stone XL. 17,000 pages of sci­entif­ic study have con­cluded that Key­stone XL would have min­im­al im­pact on the en­vir­on­ment,” said spokes­man Dav­is Sheremata.

Clin­ton’s new stance is the latest twist in the half-dec­ade long fight over Key­stone. En­vir­on­ment­al­ists, es­pe­cially Ver­mont act­iv­ist Bill McK­ib­ben and his group, helped trans­form Key­stone from an ob­scure bur­eau­crat­ic per­mit­ting scuffle in­to a high-pro­file cam­paign.

Some evid­ence of that meta­morph­os­is: Clin­ton, while sec­ret­ary of State, made a now-fam­ous com­ment in 2010 that she was “in­clined” to ap­prove Key­stone. But in sub­sequent months and years, the battle be­came far more heated and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion slow-walked the re­view.

The tussle has been atyp­ic­al in the Belt­way, fo­cus­ing not on le­gis­la­tion or a broad­er reg­u­lat­ory ques­tion, but rather on a single pro­ject. It has in­cluded large Wash­ing­ton, D.C. protests and civil dis­obedi­ence.

“Make no mis­take: Today is clear proof that so­cial move­ments move polit­ics. Thanks to thou­sands of ded­ic­ated act­iv­ists around the coun­try who spent years put­ting their bod­ies on the line to pro­tect our cli­mate, we’ve taken a top-tier pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate’s ‘in­clin­a­tion to ap­prove’ Key­stone XL, and turned it in­to yet an­oth­er call for re­jec­tion,” said May Bo­eve, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of 350 Ac­tion, the polit­ic­al arm of

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists ar­gue that Key­stone, if built, would be a ma­jor cata­lyst for growth of car­bon-in­tens­ive oil-sands pro­duc­tion in Al­berta, site of massive hy­dro­car­bon re­sources where pro­duc­tion is around 2 mil­lion bar­rels per day.

Sup­port­ers of the pro­ject say it will have little ef­fect on the rate of oil-sands pro­duc­tion in­creases over time, cit­ing oth­er op­tions, like rail­ways, for get­ting the product to mar­ket.

Obama has said he will not ap­prove Key­stone un­less he is sure it would not “sig­ni­fic­antly worsen” green­house-gas emis­sions.

A ma­jor State De­part­ment ana­lys­is in early 2014 buoyed pipeline sup­port­ers, con­clud­ing that the pro­ject would have little ef­fect on fu­ture oil-sands pro­duc­tion levels and hence little green­house-gas im­pact.

The re­port’s au­thors also cited what they con­sidered an un­likely scen­ario that could change that con­clu­sion: a big, sus­tained drop in prices that could hinder the growth of oil-sands de­vel­op­ment without Key­stone, at least if oth­er pipeline pro­jects don’t go for­ward either.

However, in early Feb­ru­ary of this year, the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency told the State De­part­ment that its cli­mate-change ana­lys­is of the im­pact of lower prices should be giv­en “ad­di­tion­al weight” in light of the sharp drop in oil prices, which began in the sum­mer of 2014.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.