The Left’s Quixotic Keystone Quest

What Obama’s veto says about his broader energy policies

Amidst the laments of a “bitterly divided Congress” and “broken Washington”, there’s one project that’s received broad bipartisan support in both chambers and is favored by a large majority of the public. Yet when the bill reached President Obama’s desk yesterday he swiftly vetoed it. It’s a move that should leave many Americans scratching their heads and asking, “Why?”

The project of course is the Keystone XL pipeline, a 1,179 mile project stretching from the Canadian border in North Dakota to Steele City, Nebraska. It’s backed by the energy industry and labor unions, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and 57% of the public according to recent polls. This broad support was reflected in Congress, with 63 Senators (9 Democrats and all Republicans) and 270 Members of the House (29 Democrats and all but one Republican) voting “aye” on the bill to approve the project.

The Keystone bill was a true triumph for the Senate under new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), whose pledge to return the chamber to “regular order” was a key tenet of his 2014 reelection campaign (for a more extensive analysis of why regular order is so beneficial to Congress and the country, read John Hart’s piece here). This meant allowing Senators of both parties the opportunity to offer amendments, a practice largely abolished during Harry Reid’s despotic tenure as Majority Leader. More amendments were voted on in the Keystone bill than the year’s total in 2014.

Regular order, open amendments, and bipartisan bills the American people support; it almost sounds like Congress is working again! So why after complaining of Washington dysfunction does Obama want to throw a wrench just as the gears of lawmaking are starting to work effectively?

Keystone XL Pipeline Approval Act

Republican leaders hold a ceremonial bill signing for the Keystone pipeline legislation. The bill passed both the House and Senate with strong bipartisan support.

The answer of course – as with most questions of politics – is money. The power of the environmentalist left lies not in its number of activists but in the number of dollars it donates, almost exclusively, to the Democratic Party. Climate change consistently ranks in the bottom tier of issues that concern voters most, yet it is often given the most attention by Democrats in Congress.

Last year’s midterm elections showed just how much influence environmentalists wield on the Left. Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer personally spent a whopping $74 million (more than the next five highest donors combined) during the 2014 cycle to elect Democratic candidates that would adhere to his extreme views on energy policy. Yet for a man who made his fortune running a hedge fund, his political investments in 2014 were significantly less sound: four of his chosen candidates lost while only three won, and only one of those three was in a truly competitive race.

The moment of clarity came this past November 18th. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, locked in a political life-or-death run-off with Republican challenger Bill Cassidy, brought up a Keystone bill to prove her “clout” as Chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She got close, 14 Democrats joined all 45 Republicans to support the bill’s passage, but fell one vote short of the 60-vote threshold to end debate. All she needed was one more Democrat to buck the party’s donor class, but no more would yield. Her liberal colleagues effectively left her for dead. Harry Reid (who voted against the measure) may as well have said, “We like you, Mary, but not as much as we like Tom Steyer.”

“The White House is perfectly content to continue collecting environmentalists’ donations while the project sits in limbo”

For a party that loves to bash the libertarian brothers Charles and David Koch (who gave a combined $7.8 million in 2014, just over 10 percent of Steyer’s donations) Democrats always fail to acknowledge how beholden they are to their own billionaires. Were President Obama to allow Keystone to proceed, the flow of Steyer’s cash would cease. But if Obama were to outright reject the pipeline, his party would face the backlash from the myriad of groups and voters that support it. So the White House is perfectly content to continue collecting donations from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York while the project sits in limbo.

But the President is running out of reasons to not approve Keystone. His own State Department said it would create jobs and be safer for the environment. Then he tried to wait for a Nebraska court ruling on the pipeline’s route, but the state’s Supreme Court approved it this January.

It’s now been over 2,300 days since this process started. When White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest attempted to explain away the President’s continued foot-dragging on Keystone Monday, the press corps laughed in his face.

In the height of irony, Holman Jenkins recently explained in the Wall Street Journal how Obama has overseen an oil-by-rail boom. Have the President and Democrats forgotten that transporting oil by rail is much worse for the environment than by pipeline? Maybe they have (politicians do possess notoriously short memories, after all) or maybe they don’t care.

And why should they? As long as Tom Steyer and environmentalist donors are kept happy, they’ll continue to fill the campaign coffers of Democrats and their Super PACs around the country. Forget the environmental impact. Forget the jobs. Forget what the voters want. It’s in the Left’s financial interest to continue their quixotic quest against Keystone.

Gillum Ferguson is Deputy Editor of Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @GillumFerguson.