Hillary Clinton opposes Keystone XL, but is it already dead?

While Keystone remains a big issue for environmentalists and politicians, it may no longer be of much interest to energy companies, experts say.

Charlie Neibergall/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during a community forum on healthcare, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015, at Moulton Elementary School in Des Moines, Iowa. Clinton broke her longstanding silence over the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, telling voters at a campaign stop in Iowa on Tuesday that she opposes the project assailed by environmentalists.

After pressure to take a firm position on the Keystone pipeline, Hillary Clinton finally declared Tuesday that she doesn’t think the pipeline should be built. But it’s possible that energy companies won’t want it built now, either.

While Keystone remains a big issue for environmentalists and politicians, it may no longer be of much interest to energy companies, experts say. The reason: sinking oil prices.

The state of oil prices has damaged the economic viability of the pipeline, making it easier to oppose politically, says Edward Parson, co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law.

“While Keystone has always attracted political and ideological attention far greater than its actual concrete significance,” he says, “in terms of people actually wanting to build it ... support has to have diminished because of collapsing oil prices.”

In general, high oil prices result from high demand, and they encourage energy companies to invest more in infrastructure to extract the fuel and get it to market. On the other hand, low oil prices mean low demand and few incentives to invest in infrastructure.

Oil prices have been sinking since mid-2014. If prices stay low, it “could mark the beginning of a long-term drop in upstream investment,” the US Energy Information Administration said Wednesday.

“It’s not clear there are investors or businesses that are on fire about [approving Keystone],” Professor Parson says. “It’s just a less important deal for them in a world of cheap oil.”

Michael Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, expressed a similar view in January. “There’s an outside chance that, if prices are sustained at an extremely low level, the Keystone XL pipeline won’t get built,” he wrote. “Keystone XL, like any oil production project, is less compelling when prices are lower.”

TransCanada, which proposed the Keystone project in 2008, indicated Tuesday that it remains committed to the plans. “Our focus remains on securing a permit to build Keystone XL,” the company said in a blog post.

Last year, TransCanada estimated the Keystone project to cost $8 billion, Bloomberg reported.

Mrs. Clinton, a Democratic presidential candidate, went on the record with her position Tuesday by telling The Des Moines Register editorial board. But while she cleared up that specific question, she has echoed energy analysts in questioning the larger importance of the pipeline.

She elaborated on these thoughts in an essay published by Medium on Wednesday afternoon.

“For too long, the Keystone XL pipeline has been a distraction from the real challenges facing our energy sector ...,” she wrote. “Building a clean, secure, and affordable North American energy future is bigger than Keystone XL or any other single project. That’s what I will focus on as president.”

Specifics of how she would achieve that remain unclear, however.

Her essay proposes a few new policies, including forging a “North American Climate Compact” with Mexico and Canada to set strong carbon emissions reduction targets and investing in pipeline safety and electrical grid security. In July, she unveiled a plan to install more than 1 billion solar panels on US homes by 2020.

Some commentators are viewing Clinton’s opposition to Keystone as the ticking of an ideological box. In The Washington Post, editorial writer Stephen Stromberg said that environmentalist opposition to Keystone has been “fierce but misdirected,” and “a massive misallocation of time and passion that Clinton has now indulged.”

“Clinton’s argument seems to be that activists have made Keystone XL into a symbolic test of the US commitment to battling climate change, one that the country must deal with before moving onto policy that might make much more of a difference,” he added.

According to a 2013 article in The Atlantic, canceling the Keystone pipeline would save at most 180 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. By comparison, the Clean Power Plan, when it is fully in place, will reduce CO2 emissions from the power sector by 870 million tons a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

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