In the past few days, two very different strategies have emerged from Congressional opponents to the Keystone XL pipeline.
On Friday, 36 House Democrats sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to require that "the oil and refined product the pipeline transports to be sold in the United States." It reflects a bold and risky gamble by leading House Democrats, including Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) to frame the pipeline as economically counterproductive rather than environmentally dangerous.
The letter does not exactly come out against the pipeline, although many of the co-signers had previously expressed opposition to the project, and the letter appears to have been written for that purpose. Instead, the letter frames its message narrowly in economic terms within the "national interest" parameters of the State Department's decision-making powers. That is, rather than arguing that the Keystone XL would cause an unacceptable environmental impact through the danger of oil spills or the unleashing of ever-greater greenhouse gas emissions, the co-signers say that without additional safeguards, the pipeline would simply funnel the Canadian crude to export terminals on the Gulf Coast, from where it would be sent abroad, with virtually no benefit for the United States.
As I discussed in two posts last month (here and here), the case that the pipeline would be largely for exports is built on broad extrapolations from limited evidence. To build the anti-pipeline argument solely on that pillar seems quite risky. Pro-pipeline analysts in the Obama administration need only undermine that one pillar and the whole argument crumbles.
Which doesn't mean the framing isn't tactically astute. The State Department has said it will decide by the end of this year whether the 1,700-mile, $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline project is in the "national interest." This term is notably vague, although the Obama administration's election-oriented focus on jobs may mean that the term will be defined mainly according to its perceived economic impact. So if the environment is simply not taken seriously anymore by the administration, you use whatever topic does indeed get traction.
This kind of maneuvering is far, far Inside the Beltway. For those of us who live across the country and do not spend large amounts of time on Capitol Hill, we can only shrug and trust that the D.C folks have top-notch insider intelligence and are making the right calculations. Let's hope they assess the odds more accurately than they did last year with the cap-and-trade strategy debacle.
The second strategy is to use a straightforward argument on environmental grounds -- saying that the pipeline would be a disaster and that the official assessment process has been marred irretrievably by the State Department's blatant conflicts of interest with lobbyists for TransCanada. It's the basis of a separate Congressional letter to Clinton, one that is still being circulated for more signatures. At last report, it only had seven co-signers -- a rather underwhelming result.
The factual basis for that argument seems much more rock-solid and undeniable, however. It also lays the groundwork for a potential lawsuit after the final decision, alleging bias and improper procedure in the State Department's Keystone XL review.