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November 09, 2012

The 2012 Elections and the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline

TS rally 1
Advocacy in support of TransCanada's Keystone XL tar sands pipeline was not the political winner many predicted in the 2012 election cycle. 

Earlier this year, American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard predicted political consequences for anything less than full embrace of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, saying: "The Keystone XL pipeline is in the national interest. A determination to decide anything less than that I believe will have huge political consequences."

From Florida to Nebraska, several of the most prominent and public campaigners on behalf of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline were not helped by their association and advocacy with this tar sands pipeline. Similarly, many of those targeted as Keystone XL tar sands opponents won re-election, contrary to the predictions of Gerard and other pro-KXL commentators.

The bottom lineBig Oil bet big and lost big, on Keystone XL and on a handful of other dirty energy issues. Having the right policy on the dirty and dangerous Keystone XL tar sands pipeline didn’t hurt candidates politically – and running on the dubious merits of the tar sands pipeline may have hurt more than helped in many races throughout the country. Voters want to see real leadership on transitioning to a clean and new energy economy and tar sands does not fit into this forward thinking policy agenda.


Among the evidence for the above claims:
  • In the presidential race, the Romney/Ryan campaign tried to make approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline a major issue. Mitt Romney promised that approval of the tar sands pipeline would occur on the first day of his potential presidency, even going so far as to say, "I will build that pipeline if I have to do it myself."  Meanwhile, vice presidential contender Paul Ryan added pro-Keystone XL tar sands talking points into many of his campaign speeches, such as these comments in Iowa from October: "On Day One, we say yes to Keystone!" Additionally, theRomney energy plan and the Republican Party’s official 2012 platform from the RNC each included paeans to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and attacks over President Obama’s decision to deny the pipeline proposal last winter. The attacks clearly failed to gain traction, as President Obama's resounding victory included wins in many of the Rust Belt battleground states where some predicted that anything less than full-throated support for Keystone XL would harm him politically.
  • None of those voting to defeat the Keystone XL construction "Hoeven amendment" lost their races. In March 2012, the U.S. Senate defeated John Hoeven's amendment to the transportation bill that would have required immediate construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline even though the review was not complete. In the 2012 elections, zero members who voted against the amendment lost their re-election campaign.
  • In FloridaRep. Connie Mackran for U.S. Senate against incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL).  The result? Despite being outspent in the race, Sen. Nelson cruised to re-election by a 55%-42% margin. Rep. Mack repeatedly bashed Sen. Nelson over opposition to Keystone XL pipeline, including having his Super PAC run ads on the subject, launching a petition drive to call for the building of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and holding candidate eventsin front of gas stations, sending numerous faxes to small businesses, erroneously linking opposition to the pipeline with high gas prices. Typical was this Mack campaign press statement – "Senator Nelson is using his perch as a member of the conference committee to stop the authorization of a project the American people want and need, the Keystone XL Pipeline," asking why Sen. Nelson was "standing in the way of a project that would put Americans back to work?"
  • In Michigan's 6th Congressional districtHouse Energy and Commerce Chair and Keystone XL champion Rep. Fred Upton won re-election, but by the narrowest margin of his 25-year congressional career despite spending over $4 million to his challenger's $220,000.  Rep. Upton used his chairmanship to be a lead proponent of Keystone XL, such as when he falsely linked approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to American energy independence during an official Republican weekly address last spring. Perhaps most notably, Rep. Upton has been vocally pro-tar sands pipeline despite the tremendous cautionary tale right in his own backyard. The devastating tar sands oil spill in the Kalamazoo River shut down portions of the river for two years.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the disconnect between constituents' first-hand experiences and Upton’s pro-tar sands advocacy, the Congressman won Kalamazoo County by only 9 votes – over 12,000 fewer votes than in the last presidential year.
  • In Nebraska, the focal point for much of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline battles over the past year, a series of congressional and state legislature races included major focus on the Keystone XL pipeline – and evidence that staunchly pro-Keystone XL politicians were not helped by their advocacy.

o    Congressman Lee Terry (R-NE) of Nebraska's 2nd congressional district barely won re-election over the heavily outspent John Ewing. Rep. Terry won with the narrowest margin of victory of his 14-year career. Rep. Terry has been a leading pro-Keystone XL advocate and the issue became a major one in the race. His opponent John Ewing repeatedly spoke about the environmental and economic risks of the pipeline and Terry’s reckless introduction of bills to fast-track the pipeline. Terry had a 4-to1 fundraising advantage.

o    In the Nebraska legislature, two leading Senators pushing for stronger oil regulations and a new Keystone XL route won re-election. Ken Haar was targeted by Koch brothers -funded Americans for Prosperity for his environmental stance on the pipeline and his work to get the pipeline rerouted. Haar campaigned on his environmental record and won. Kate Sullivan who authored an oil spill reclamation law also won with huge margins. Additionally, five new state senators were elected that all have positions that the pipeline still must be re-re-routed around the Aquifer and stronger eminent domain laws for landowners.

o    On the largest Nebraska power board, Fred Christensen -- a farmer -- beat an incumbent in the primary and went on to win in the general with a clear message against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and consistently spoke about wind and clean energy.

* Though we saw pro-pipeline Democrats Jon Tester (Montana) and Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota) eke out victories, the impact of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is difficult to gauge -- since both of their opponents were even more pro-pipeline. In these elections, voters only had the choice between two pro-pipeline candidates. Some local advocates communicated that, especially with Tester, his position on the pipeline was difficult for his base to accept and may have hampered enthusiasm.

At the end of the day: Big Oil bet big and lost big. Though API and its allies assumed that Keystone XL would be a winning issue this election, Tuesday's results show that Big Oil was clearly mistaken. Recent polling finds that American voters are more concerned than ever with climate change -- and the electoral successes of Keystone XL opponent fits into that narrative. Opposition for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline had no negative political impact for candidates -– and running on the dubious merits of the tar sands pipeline may have hurt more than helped in many races throughout the country. Voters want to see real leadership on transitioning to a clean and new energy economy, and tar sands does not fit into this forward thinking policy agenda.

-- From the Sierra Club, Oil Change International, and Bold Nebraska

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