FAIRWAY, KS — A palpable exhaustion seems to have set in this year among some journalists when it comes to the Keystone XL pipeline project, which has been under review for five years. “It seems to us that we have finally reached the ‘enough already’ moment in this debate,” Bloomberg News said in an April editorial. “Enough dawdling,” said the Chicago Tribune editorial board in March. “Keystone is by now the most studied pipeline in this nation’s history,” wrote the Houston Chronicle in January.
Along the pipeline route, local editorial sentiment seems similarly tired of the debate. The Daily Oklahoman in February lamented the “1,616 days, 12 hours, 27 minutes and 57 seconds that have gone by since the permit application was filed,” and concluded: “The meter is running. It’s past time for this project to get a green light.” A January editorial in the Omaha World-Herald argued that environmental concerns have been addressed, so President Obama should go ahead already and approve the construction of the 1,700-mile, $7 billion pipeline, which would shoot 700,000 barrels a day of tar-sands oil from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. A Lincoln Journal Star editorial in March echoed the World-Herald: “Nebraskans can be gratified that their voices were heard and that the revised pipeline project has been improved significantly from the initial proposal.”
For these editorial boards, the debate is done. Opponents were dismissed in cursory fashion: The Journal Star characterized them as “a dwindling vocal minority” who “oppose the use of fossil fuels in general.” The World-Herald summed up the opposing arguments by noting a mini-controversy over a bald eagle’s nest that would be in the pipeline’s path, calling it an “encouraging” sign that even such a minor issue was being addressed.
But, not so fast. Not only is the pipeline question unresolved, but the fight over it remains as intense as ever, if somewhat underneath the media radar. Reporters in Nebraska and nationwide have done some fine work over the years in covering the Keystone battle, and they would do well to remember that the story isn’t over. In some ways, it may be just beginning.
One sign of the enduring power of the issue is the intensity of pressure being brought to bear—on both sides of the question.
TransCanada, the Calgary-based company that seeks to build the pipeline, has played a major role in defining the debate, and continues to do so. The company’s lobbying for the pipeline dates at least as far back as 2006, Jack Gould of Common Cause Nebraska told me. As Common Cause Nebraska later discovered, TransCanada had hired a lobbying firm in Lincoln to quietly wine and dine members of the state’s unicameral legislature—pushing the line that the pipeline project was not their problem, but a matter for the federal government.
Yet after the pipeline application was submitted in 2008, opposition began to take hold. In 2010, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman and Attorney General Jon Bruning were forced to return donations that they had received from TransCanada in violation of campaign finance laws that prohibited taking campaign money from foreign corporations. In 2011, Heineman called a special session of the legislature to address the pipeline, prompting TransCanada to spend $529,000 on lobbying and legal expenses for that session alone.
Late last year, TransCanada, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and a host of industry lobbyists flew state legislators from all over the US into Canada for a three-day “ALEC Academy” on tar-sands oil. (The event later drew an ethics complaint from the liberal Center for Media and Democracy against Nebraska state Sen. Jim Smith, for failure to disclose the trip.)
This year, even as some in the media seem to be tiring of the issue and declaring it done, the lobbying is more intense than ever. Bloomberg News in April reported that 48 groups lobbied on the issue in the first three months of the year—from Exxon Mobil to the Laborers International Union of North America to the American Jewish Committee, with all but two of the 48 apparently in favor of the pipeline. The highest-profile Keystone lobbyist of them all, as National Journal pointed out last week, is Canada itself.
These lobbying expenditures over the years seem to have borne legislative fruit. The House of Representatives has voted no fewer than seven times to move the project forward, and the Senate followed suit in a 62-37 vote this March. In April 2012, Nebraska legislators approved a bill sponsored by Jim Smith—the state senator who would later that year take part in the “ALEC academy” trip—expediting the pipeline approval process at the state level.