For a candidate competing in the Democratic nomination process, opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline is a relatively simple decision. That Hillary Clinton announced hers now — taking strategic advantage of the attention being lavished on the arrival of Pope Francis to bury the news — says something significant about how she sees her position for 2016.
The long-stalled pipeline became a focal point of fierce environmental opposition several years ago thanks to the amount of tar sands oil it would transport. Tar sands oil requires more processing than other forms of oil and therefore, studies have found, produces more of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Since the pipeline would cross the U.S.-Canada border, it requires approval from the executive branch. The first permit approval fell to then-Secretary of State Clinton’s State Department, where it languished. President Obama rejected the permit in early 2012, prompting the company behind the pipeline to revamp its plans and try again.
In a March 2015 poll, Fox News found that the majority of Americans who had an opinion about the pipeline objected to Obama’s opposition. But there was a strong partisan split: 69 percent of Republicans favored approving the permit and 56 percent of Democrats favored the veto. That mirrors Pew findings from last year, showing that liberals opposed the pipeline most strongly.
Addressing environmental challenges, as it turns out, is one of the most partisan issues before government. Eighty-nine percent of liberal Democrats believe the effects of warming are happening or will happen in their lifetimes, and 81 percent accept that human activity is the primary cause. Only two-thirds of moderate Democrats, by contrast, agree that human activity is to blame for climate change.
There’s something else that moderate and liberal Democrats disagree on: Who should be the Democratic nominee for president. In CNN/ORC’s most recent poll, released earlier this week, Clinton’s standing improved over that of Bernie Sanders, but she still faces stronger opposition among liberals than among more moderate members of her party.
In other words, the group with which Clinton is doing worse more strongly believes that people are causing climate change and more strongly opposes Keystone XL. The politics explain themselves.
Unless you’re looking ahead to a national election. For months, Clinton has balked at saying how she feels about Keystone, which could easily be interpreted as not wanting to take a stand — and hoping the issue would go away before the election arrived. Given that a plurality of Americans oppose blocking the pipeline — being less concerned about climate effects and supporting the jobs it would create — opposing the pipeline may make a general election fight slightly harder. But that’s the lesson: Clinton is now willing to make her November case slightly more difficult if she can make her spring fight easier.
Why did Clinton oppose it? Here’s what she said.
That’s not an argument based on the merits; it’s an argument based on expediency. And it’s not really consistent. She claims to have wanted to speak out for a long time — but then only calls it a “distraction” from “important” issues. She added that Keystone wouldn’t really add many jobs, which is true, but the statement itself reads like a political decision, not a moral one.
Bernie Sanders clearly recognizes the politics at play. In a statement, he made pointed reference to Clinton joining him on this issue. Clinton is late to the party on Keystone, but she’s clearly interested in being where the party is.
At least, the more liberal members of the party. The ones who will go to the polls in February.