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Why do some Democrats support Keystone XL? Just follow the money

If you want to know why 11 Democratic senators support the Keystone XL pipeline, just follow the money.
Anti-fracking and Keystone XL pipeline activists demonstrate in lower Manhattan on September 21, 2013 in New York City
Anti-fracking and Keystone XL pipeline activists demonstrate in lower Manhattan on September 21, 2013 in New York City

As the country gears up for the midterm elections this November, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democratic leadership have made the Koch Brothers Public Enemy Number One. So why did 11 Democrats just sign onto a bill supporting the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that would add billions to the brothers' coffers?

Democratic hostility toward the Kochs is well-known and oft proclaimed. On Wednesday, Sen. Reid called the Koch brothers “one of the main causes” of global warming. That’s building on a couple weeks ago, when Reid accused the Kochs and other moneyed interests of "influencing the politics in a way not seen for generations.” Reid went on to call their vision of America “radical” and “dystopian.” The Kochs responded that they were “disappointed” Reid was “attacking private citizens.” 

As it turns out, Keystone XL is right at the center of the Kochs' vision of a brave new world. According to a report by the liberal International Forum on Globalization (IFG), the 800,000 barrel-a-day pipeline would lower the costs of transporting tar sands, driving up profit margins and making other reserves more economically viable. More importantly, it would help unlock the Canadian tar sands, where a  Koch brothers-owned subsidiary is the largest non-Canadian leaseholder. When the Pulitzer Prize-winning SolveClimate News conducted an analysis of the Koch’s holdings, they concluded the brothers were positioned to be “big winners” if Keystone XL is approved. 

How big? As much as $100 billion, according to the IFG report, although the number is being disputed by ... well, the Koch brothers. But even if the total benefit was just 10% of that sum, that’s another $10 billion for the Kochs to spend attacking workers' rights, dismantling environmental protections, eviscerating health care and electing climate deniers. 

No surprise then that the brothers and their Big Oil buddies have been spending big to try and get Keystone XL approved. According to new numbers from Oil Change International, the oil industry has now given over $20 million in donations to pro-Keystone XL members of Congress. Senators that support Keystone have received an average of five times as much oil industry money as senators that oppose the project. And the vast majority of the money has gone to Republicans. 

So why are 11 Democrats supporting Keystone XL? For some of them, like Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, you just need to follow the money. Sen. Landrieu gets so much cash from the fossil fuel industry that she could be the Koch Sister. It’s no surprise she’s looking to pay back her wealthy donors. 

Other Democrats, like Sens. John Walsh, Mark Warner and Kay Hagan, are no doubt worried about their reelection bids this November. They’ve seen some polls saying the majority of the American public supports Keystone XL and they’re running scared. 

But they’re running in the wrong direction. Midterm elections aren’t determined by candidates’ positions on far off infrastructure projects, they’re determined by turnout, which in turn is supported by voter intensity. And all of the intensity is on the side of pipeline opponents -- when was the last time 50,000 people rallied in Washington, D.C. to support Keystone XL?

That intensity was on display last week, when pipeline activists turned out across the country to keep other on-the-fence Democrats from supporting Keystone XL. The pressure worked: Despite all of Big Oil’s spending, Republicans have been unable to muster the 60 votes they need to pass a bill supporting Keystone XL. As Bold Nebraska Director Jane Kleeb said on the Ed Show Wednesday night, “$21 million couldn’t buy Big Oil this vote. Intensity is on our side. We will never have the amount of money they have. But they will never have the kind of heart and soul we have fighting this pipeline.” 

The 11 Democrats supporting Keystone XL want to have their climate action and eat their tar sands, too. But while an “all of the above” approach might sound nice on paper, the actual planet doesn’t work that way. Physics and chemistry don’t negotiate. You’re either building more massive carbon polluting infrastructure or you’re not. The Democratic party can’t continue to say it wants to kick the fossil fuel habit when its own lawmakers are voting for Big Oil. Eventually, the mixed-messaging is going to catch up with them.

Which is all the more reason for the president to deny the permit for Keystone XL. By saying no to the pipeline, Obama would send a clear signal that he’s serious about tackling the climate crisis. He’ll also help the country, and the Democratic party, begin the fossil fuel detox that our top scientists have ordered.

That would be bad news for the Koch brothers -- and great news for the rest of us.

Jamie Henn is the communications director for 350 Action, a nonprofit environmental organization, and co-founder of