While Keystone XL still enjoys broad approval, issue divides Democrats

September 26, 2013
Bryan Templeton is facilities manager at the Keystone facility in Hardisty, Alberta. The pipes at left are literally the ones that will connect the existing Keystone operation with the new expanded Keystone XL. (AKA Keystone B) which is under construction.. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post
Bryan Templeton is facilities manager at the Keystone facility in Hardisty, Alberta. The pipes at left are the ones that will connect the existing Keystone operation with the new expanded Keystone XL. (AKA Keystone B) which is under construction. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

As the Obama administration continues to weigh whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, a Pew Research Center poll released Thursday finds Americans' broad support for the project has not wavered even as the issue continues to fracture the Democratic Party’s liberal and moderate wings.

The survey finds a public of two minds on energy issues: Americans have a clear preference for expanding alternative energy over fossil fuels – by a 58 to 34 percent margin, and they support curbing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. But they take a piecemeal approach to policies that boost fossil fuel production, supporting some while opposing others.

Take Keystone. Nearly two-thirds support building the pipeline running from Canada to Texas (65 percent), a number hardly changed from 66 percent in March. Likewise, 58 percent support allowing more offshore oil and gas drilling, down seven points from 2012, but a proposal that has won majority support since late 2010.

2013-09-26 pew keystone

The public is less keen on other fossil fuel efforts. Opposition to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has risen sharply from 38 percent this spring to 49 percent in the new survey, with opponents now outnumbering supporters (44 percent).

And the public backs stricter carbon limits on power plants to address climate change by the same margin as they support the Keystone pipeline: 65 percent in favor and 30 percent opposed. Just last week, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a proposed rule that would impose the first-ever greenhouse gas emissions limits on new power plants, and it plans to issue a separate climate rule for existing plants in June 2014.

The partisan divide on energy issues is growing, but the Keystone pipeline has split Democrats along ideological lines. Nearly six in 10 moderate and conservative Democrats support building the pipeline (58 percent), isolating liberals as the only political group where a majority opposes the project (54 percent oppose Keystone). Overall, Democrats tilt 51 to 43 percent in favor of the pipeline.

That poses a challenge for Obama, given that environmentalists have made Keystone XL a litmus test of his commitment to address global warming. Just this week more than two dozen of the nation's environmental leaders sent the president a letter warning him that under no circumstances would it be acceptable for him to award TransCanada a presidential permit for the project.

Despite Americans' overall support for the project, Obama has paid no political price for hesitating to approve the pipeline. He receives his best approval rating on energy issues since 2011 in the Pew Research poll – 44 percent approve and 38 percent disapprove, with disapproval dropping seven points since May 2012.

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Chris Cillizza · September 26, 2013