Environmentalists hope spill will turn Americans against Keystone

Environmentalists are hoping the recent Exxon pipeline spill in Arkansas will do what no other event has been able to do so far: turn Americans against the Keystone XL pipeline extension project.

The 1,700-mile project, which would bring crude oil from Hardisty, Alberta to refineries in Port Arthur, Tex., enjoys broad support from the public. A Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday found 66 percent of Americans back the project, as opposed to 23 percent who oppose it.

But billionaire Tom Steyer, who hosted a  Democratic fundraiser which President Obama headlined Wednesday night, is hoping to change that. His consultants held a focus group in Boston Wednesday night with likely Massachusetts Democratic primary voters. Initially they found the group roughly evenly split in terms of attitudes toward the pipeline, until they showed them images of last week’s Exxon oil spill in Mayflower, Ark.

"When we showed footage of tar sands oil rolling down suburban streets in Arkansas, people in the focus groups were practically out of their chairs - even at the end of a two-hour focus group,” wrote consultant Mike Casey in an e-mail. “To a person, they were outraged. Two switched their votes on the spot from Lynch to Markey. The footage hit home with all of them."

Lynch campaign campaign spokesman Conor Yunits wrote in an e-mail that oil also spilled in a train derailment in Minnesota, showing that alternative methods of transporting oil also have a downside.

"The question is, how can it be transported in the safest possible way? ‬" Yunits asked. "Congressman Lynch believes that if we can construct the pipeline safely, we should consider it.  But, as he has said all along, if President Obama and Secretary Kerry ultimately decide that it cannot be constructed safely, he will support their decision."

Will the environmentalists' campaign be enough to shift public opinion? The League of Conservation Voters indicated Wednesday they will adopt a similar strategy: their new senior adviser Bill Burton told reporters in a phone call that accidents such as the Arkansas spill “can really focus people on the issue” and the negative consequences associated with pipelines.

Still, green groups may have a challenge comparing the aging pipeline in Arkansas with the brand new project TransCanada plans to build in the middle of the country. The current Keystone pipeline, which would be extended with this new project, has 16,000 data points that are refreshed every five seconds to alert TransCanada officials to the possibility of a spill.

American Petroleum Institute spokesman Carlton Carroll, whose group has already spent heavily on advertising to tout the Keystone XL project, wrote in an e-mailm "The Keystone XL pipeline is state-of-the-art, and it will be the most efficient and safest way to deliver this energy in a way that will fuel jobs in America and make us less dependent on sources of energy from less stable parts of the world."

Let the battle begin.

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Aaron Blake | April 4, 2013