As President Obama travels to San Francisco to attend two fundraisers Wednesday – one hosted by an anti-Keystone billionaire, the other by an oil heir – environmental activists are stepping up their campaign to convince the president that the Keystone XL oil pipeline is a bad idea.
So far, they haven't convinced the broader public. Two-thirds of Americans support the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, according to a new Pew survey. The oil and gas industry says Tuesday's poll is an encouraging show of support for the pipeline, which would transport energy-intensive crude from Canadian tar sands (also known as oil sands) to refineries in Texas.
"The Pew poll is a reflection of the growing public support for KXL," wrote Sabrina Fang, a spokeswoman for the American Petroleum Institute, in an e-mail. "The majority of the American people want KXL to be built because it will create thousands of jobs and enhance our nation’s energy security."
Critics challenge Keystone's economic benefits, saying the pipeline would create few permanent jobs and be used to export oil out of the US. The State Department's most recent review concluded the project would potentially support 42,100 annual jobs over a one- to two-year construction period and 35 permanent jobs.
Still, 66 percent of Americans support the pipeline, according to the poll by the Washington-based Pew Research Center, while 23 percent oppose it. For the minority in opposition, it reflects a lack of public understanding of the pipeline.
"When you look at the details of the project, it looks a lot uglier than a lot of the superficial view many Americans have seen so far," said Anthony Swift, an attorney with Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental organization based in New York. "The Pegasus pipeline is one of those uglier sides, but not the only one."
That's a reference to last week's ExxonMobil pipeline spill in Arkansas, in which a more-than-60-year-old pipeline leaked thousands of barrels of heavy Canadian crude oil. Environmentalists say the images of suburban lawns and driveways coated in a viscous, black liquid help make their case.
"We don’t want to be opportunistic about this, but it’s a chance to educate American people about what’s under their feet," said Daniel Kessler, a spokesman for 350.org, a grass-roots organizing campaign against climate change. "It’s not a question of if Keystone is going to leak, it’s a question of when."
TransCanada, the Canadian energy company behind the project, says it's an unfair comparison. Keystone XL would be built with state-of-the-art technology, the company says, and it has voluntarily agreed to 57 new safety procedures. Those conditions "would result in a project that would have a degree of safety over any other typically constructed domestic oil pipeline system under current code," according to the State Department review.
"It is easy for these groups to ignore the fact that every year, billions of barrels of oil move safely throughout North America," wrote Shawn Howard, a spokesman for TransCanada, in an e-mail.
It's up to Mr. Obama to make the final decision. He is offering few clues on where he stands.
He is scheduled to attend two fundraisers Wednesday night – one at the home of anti-Keystone billionaire Tom Steyer, who has invested millions in combating climate change; the other at the home of the son of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty. The president will likely get an earful from both sides of the contentious Keystone XL pipeline debate.
When asked if he would raise the issue with the president, Mr. Steyer told the San Francisco Chronicle, "It's not every day that the president comes to San Francisco, and we're incredibly excited about that."
Pipeline opponents also plan to picket Mr. Getty's home.
The public will have an opportunity to weigh in at a April 18 comment session in Grand Island, Neb., organized by the Department of State, which is responsible for determining whether or not the project is in the national interest. A final decision on whether or not to issue a construction permit is expected to be made this summer.