Democrats cheer Keystone pipeline setback, but it could hurt them in presidential race

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton both oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, but their opposition is not universally shared among Democrats in swing states.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton both oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, but their opposition is not universally shared among Democrats in swing states.

(Mike Nelson / European Pressphoto Agency)

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders may oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, but that doesn’t mean either potential Democratic presidential nominee wants to be talking about it once their primary is settled.

They are probably breathing a sigh of relief since White House and State Department officials signaled Tuesday that the issue soon may be settled.

The Obama administration appears poised to deny a request from developer TransCanada that threatened to drag the deliberation over its proposed oil pipeline into the next administration. The prospect of punting the issue that far into the future and making it a key point of debate during the presidential election worries Democrats.

For Democrats eager to capture key swing states in the Rust Belt and Rockies, Keystone is dangerous. The loud, persistent and growing opposition in Democratic strongholds like California hasn’t taken hold in the parts of the country where the election will be hardest fought. In fact, support for the project remains strong among many of the voters who will be up for grabs next year.


In the swing state of Colorado, opposition to Keystone became an albatross to Sen. Mark Udall, who lost his bid for reelection last year. Other Democrats in swing states – including Virginia and Pennsylvania – decided it would be too politically toxic to stand in the way of an effort in Congress to force approval of the project. They joined Republicans in attempting to override President Obama’s veto.

“When it comes to the nation’s energy picture, the public is supporting an all-of-the-above approach,” said Alec Tyson, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, where polling shows that voters favor getting Keystone built. “They like the idea of renewables, but they are also supportive of drilling and extraction in certain cases.”

In Ohio, even among Democrats, support for the pipeline is significantly higher than opposition, according to a poll released last month by the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Management and Innovation Center. One of the most formidable labor organizations, North America’s Building Trades Unions, which represents about 3 million construction workers, warned in September that Democrats were making a grave mistake by lining up against the project at the behest of environmentalists and big donors.




And earlier version of this story said the poll was released this month. In fact, it was in October.


“This arrogance pushes the party’s traditional blue-collar base further and further away,” the union declared in a bitter statement when Clinton announced her opposition to Keystone. That every major Democratic candidate running for president opposes the pipeline, the statement said, is “deeply disappointing not only for this vital energy infrastructure project, but for the future direction of the party.”


Evaluating public opinion on the pipeline is complicated. Politicians are carrying on about it all the time. The project, which would connect Canadian tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries, is laden with symbolism, yet it is also obtuse. More than a third of voters confess in multiple polls that they know too little about it to have an opinion.

But fighting it has become a rallying cry for some of the most influential Democrats. California billionaire Tom Steyer, one of the biggest donors in the Democratic Party, uses Keystone as a litmus test to gauge commitment of candidates to fighting climate change. He has spent tens of millions of dollars on a political movement built around the issue.

Before Clinton announced her opposition to Keystone, she was feted at a fundraiser at Steyer’s San Francisco home.

The pipeline has become a cause celebre for Democrats arguing it would exacerbate global warming and reduce the appetite for crucial green energy projects. Hollywood A-listers have engaged in the fight, as has most every major environmental organization.


“This is a really important issue for the organized interests,” said David M. Konisky, a professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. “The Democratic super PACS and the donors and those who organize around them have been vocally opposed. So in terms of lining up the institutional support behind a campaign, this has become very important.”

But he has yet to see evidence that voters are rapidly changing their minds. Polls show a gradual decline in support for the project over the last few years, but support still eclipses opposition, Konisky said. The University of Texas poll, the most recent independent effort to assess public opinion on Keystone, found 46% of Americans in favor and 22% opposed.

The key question in swing states is how passionately voters support it. Democratic strategists say not passionately enough for voters to cast their ballots on the issue.

“Keystone has moved in voters’ minds from an important policy issue to a political football, which leads them to be more dismissive of it as an election issue,” said pollster Geoff Garin, who advises liberal advocacy groups. “The polling is clear at this stage that the only pro-Keystone voters left for whom the issue is salient are Republicans who would not vote for a Democrat in any event.”


The key takeaway from a poll he conducted this year, Garin told clients in a memo, was not that supporters outnumbered opponents, but that nearly half the voters asked said they did not know enough about the issue to even have an opinion.

Environmentalists argue the more informed voters become, the less enthusiastic they are. The American Petroleum Institute offers data concluding the opposite. Obviously, it depends who is doing the informing. But the trend lines in the oil company data are enough to give pause even to Democrats inclined to disregard anything printed on fossil fuel industry letterhead. It shows particularly strong support in purple states like Colorado and Nevada, where the presidential election will be won or lost.

“There’s probably no infrastructure project in the history of the United States that’s been as politicized as this one,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, briefing reporters Tuesday. “Although I wasn’t around for the intercontinental railroad.”

Times staff writer Michael A. Memoli in Washington contributed to this report.