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Approving Keystone XL will turn off young voters

The conventional wisdom says Obama should approve Keystone XL to provide cover for Democrats in 2014. But it could also turn off the voters Obama needs most.
Protestors in Santa Monica urge President Obama to reject the Keystone KXL Pipeline, Feb. 3, 2014.
Protestors in Santa Monica urge President Obama to reject the Keystone KXL Pipeline, Feb. 3, 2014.

The conventional wisdom on the political impact of a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline is this: President Obama should approve the project to provide cover for oil industry-friendly, middle-of-the-road Democrats who are in tight races in 2014.

Here’s the reality: a Keystone XL approval isn’t going to help these candidates any more than the administration’s past handouts to the fossil fuel industry. Big Oil and its allies are planning another round of major spending against Democrats this election cycle, and a thumbs up on Keystone wouldn’t slow them down a bit.

In many ways, it would just speed them up. Take the Koch Brothers for instance. Ty Matsdorf, a strategist for Senate Majority PAC told Politico recently, “The Koch Brothers are using an unprecedented amount of early money to flood these Senate races and try to buy the Senate.” With their major holdings in pipelines and refineries, the Koch’s stand to make billions if Keystone XL is approved. They’re unlikely to use it to help friends of Obama.

A Keystone XL approval could also turn off the very voters Obama and his allies hope to engage to advance a Democratic agenda. Years of protest have turned the pipeline into a symbolic test of the President’s commitment to address climate change. Despite the State Department’s recent back-flips to claim the pipeline wouldn’t have a dramatic environmental impact, the nation’s top climate scientists have made it crystal clear in reports and letters to the President that Keystone XL is a climate disaster. If the pipeline goes forward it will send a clear signal that the President isn’t serious about taking on the crisis.

That would be bad news for Democrats who hope to turn out the youth vote in 2014 and beyond. In a recent poll, 70% of young voters said that support for action on climate change will affect who they vote for, and 73% said they’d vote against a politician who wasn’t addressing the problem.

Meanwhile, an overwhelming 80% of young people support the President taking action to address climate change, suggesting that a pipeline rejection based on climate impacts would be widely applauded.

The real issue, however, is with turnout. A USA Today poll last December showed that 18-29 year old “millennial” voters were becoming increasingly disappointed in President Obama’s performance. In just a year, his approval rating dropped from 67 percent to 45 percent. According to another recent survey, if the disillusionment continues to spread, the drop-off in turnout from 2012 could be as high as 46.8%.

A Keystone XL approval would just accelerate the decline. Young people are tired of watching a president who ran on the promise of “ending the tyranny of oil” keep caving to the fossil fuel industry. The thing President Obama needs to show the most right now is leadership. Keystone XL is the perfect chance for him to take decisive action, stand up to Big Oil, and reject a climate disaster.

Over a thousand youth will dramatically highlight this point in a protest at the White House over the weekend called XL Dissent. More than 300 students are planning on risking arrest in a sit-in at the White House fence on Sunday, the largest such youth civil disobedience in a generation. Many of these young people cast their first votes for President Obama. Now, they plan on getting pulled away from the White House in handcuffs.

If Democrats were smart, they’d be more focused on keeping these students out of jail and getting them into voting booths. That’s going to take a presidential decision to reject Keystone XL.

Jamie Henn is the Communications Director for 350 Action and co-founder of