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Last week the U.S. House of Representatives voted 266-153 to send a bill okaying the Keystone XL pipeline to the Senate. Twenty-eight Democrats joined Republicans to pass the bill, thankfully, none from Missouri. However, our putative Democratic Senator, Claire McCaskill, is poised to join Republicans and support the bill.

Support for the Keystone XL pipeline is commonly attributed to its potential contribution to U.S. energy independence as well as claims that it would create jobs. Media reports usually, rather vaguely, summarize the motivations of the opposition to the pipeline in terms of “environmental concerns.” The fact that the environmental concerns can be substantiated while the job creation claims are seriously disputed is rarely mentioned, although most reporters currently are noting that energy independence is not as strong a consideration right now given the glut of oil on today’s market.

McCaskill has utilized the standard Republican Keystone XL talking points outlined above to explain her past votes to move the pipeline along:

I’ve long supported Keystone, because it isn’t a question of whether this oil gets produced-it’s just how it gets to market. Getting this project moving will mean creating jobs and business opportunities, and boosting America’s energy security. Those are goals we should all be able to get behind, and so my support and advocacy for this pipeline will continue.


I read this weak-kneed justification for environmental carnage and, along with actor Robert Redford, I feel compelled to ask if “we want to live in a country where expert reviews don’t matter and industry profits trump our families’ health?”  Each of the points McCaskill makes have been refuted time and time again, yet, like the most rote Republican ideologue, she offers them up yet again.

First, McCaskill implies that we might as well turn our back on the potential for environmental damage because the tar-sands fuel will reach the market no matter what. In fact, as an article in OnEarth, a publication of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) contends, the pipeline itself is essential to the economic viability and, hence, the continued production of Canada’s tar-sands oil:

There are two primary methods to move oil: by pipeline, which is cheap, and by rail, which is expensive. That cost differential is make-or-break for a tar sands business. The break-even price of tar sands oil is around $100 per barrel if transported by rail, according to Anthony Swift, a staff attorney at NRDC (which publishes Earthwire). Tar sands oil sells for $75 on a good day. So producers have to find a savings of $25 per barrel somewhere in order to make it worth the investment.

That’s why they’re so desperate for President Obama to approve Keystone XL-and why, in the pipeline’s absence, the narrow margins necessary to make tar sands extraction economical are starting to dissolve.

Furthermore, the issue goes beyond just getting the oil to the refineries. The pipeline has the potential to do real damage; it puts vital U.S. water resources at risk. Nor, incidentally, will it contribute appreciably to U.S. energy independence:

The fuel is dirty; the extraction and refining process is even dirtier. It’s so energy-intensive, in fact, that tar sands oil is barely economical to bring to market.

That’s why the industry is so desperate to build Keystone XL. The proposed $7 billion tar sands oil pipeline would run 2,000 miles across the American heartland, crossing the country’s largest freshwater aquifer to reach the Texas Gulf Coast. There, refineries would process a projected 830,000 barrels of dirty crude daily, most of them bound for overseas markets, with negligible impact on U.S. energy independence or gas prices.

And jobs? The most optimistic estimates – and I’m not talking about the dishonest estimates of 42,000 jobs that some Republicans are still putting out there – now put the number of jobs at 2,000-5,000 temporary jobs and far fewer permanent – the NRDC cites studies that claim that the pipeline will only create a few hundred permanent jobs. Before Senator McCaskill votes for this giveaway to a Canadian fossil fuel company, she had better explain to us why these more modest estimates are wrong – especially if she is really, as many suggest, planning to run for Governor next election. And while she’s at it, she should stop calling for President Obama to okay the pipeline just because the State Department has completed its assessment of the pipeline’s impacts – if you take the time to read the report, it isn’t really that rosy and, additionally, some of its conclusions have been questioned by the EPA.

While admitting that climate change is real, McCaskill has consistently behaved as if it is an inconvenient fact that can safely be ignored. Consequently, we should not be surprised that she is willing to do what seems to be politically expedient when it comes to Keystone XL – although she had better be careful. The political ground can shift with surprising rapidity. And as The Washington Post has noted, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is planning to try to grandstand big-time when the issue comes to the Senate, but Democrats (other than McCaskill, that is) are indicating that they are ready for the showdown:

Both parties are girding for a rhetorical battle that could have far-reaching political implications. Democrats, for instance, plan to offer an amendment by Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) that would force Republicans to go on record either acknowledging or denying that climate change “is real” and “is caused by human activities.”

They also will seek to force Canadian oil companies using the pipeline to pay into a federal oil-spill trust fund, a change Republicans are willing to include in the final bill, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said Friday.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, plan to focus on Keystone’s potential to create jobs and foster U.S. energy independence, as well as its broad appeal to the general public.

After that “rhetorical battle,” if Democrats play their cards right, the appeal of Keystone XL to the “general public” might not be so broad. Nothing like  political fireworks to shed light on a misunderstood and hitherto misrepresented issue.

And indeed, Senator McCaskill is giving some indications that she might be aware that the political ground under Keystone XL is not as stable as she thought. Recently she  has indicated that those nasty Republicans had better not “overreach” in the bill that they send to the President to be vetoed:

While McCaskill differs with President Barack Obama and many in her party in backing the pipeline, she said that she would look closely at amendments Republicans might add to the pipeline bill.

If Republicans try to “basically take all power away from the EPA or do some other really damaging things to the environment through the amendment process,” she said, ” it will be a very difficult decision in terms of final passage.”

A hard decision? Really? Is this woman really a Democrat in any sense whatever?