President Obama’s decision to delay a final ruling on the “tar sands” pipeline from Canada to Texas has been cheered by environmentalists a s a rare victory — and it is. But it’s also a rare product of a coalition between conservationists and conservatives in red states.
Environmentalists oppose the project because of the energy-intensive, pollution-creating oil extraction. Conservatives and tea party activists are worried about the use of eminent domain, or the government’s ability to take private property, to build a pipeline for a foreign company. And both sides are concerned about oil leaking into aquifers that supply Texas and the Plains states.
While Obama’s decision focused on the opposition in Nebraska, environmentalists all along the pipeline’s path have joined forces with conservative Republicans in opposition to the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline.
The issue has not yet become a national one for conservatives, as it has for environmentalists. But Nebraska and Montana both have competitive 2012 Senate races, and the pipeline could become a problem for candidates on both sides of the aisle. For now, it’s an example of how left and right can overcome their divisions — just like Obama always wanted.
In Texas, an active alliance has formed between tea party and environmental groups.
Debra Medina, a prominent activist who ran against Gov. Rick Perry (R) in last year’s Republican gubernatorial primary, said environmental groups reached out to her. Medina was active in the fight against the Trans-Texas Corridor, a complex all-in-one transportation network supported by Perry that collapsed in the face of public opposition.
“I initially said, ‘What’s the big deal? You’ve got a company moving its product.’ The guy said, ‘Well, they’re using eminent domain to do it,’ and all of a sudden I got real interested.”
Alberta-based TransCanada filed with the Texas Railroad Commission as a “common carrier” — meaning the project is for public use, which gives TransCanada eminent domain rights. Local opponents argue that there’s no justification for it — and that even if there is, there was no process to determine whether the pipeline is a public good.
“We have folks from every affiliation involved, including tea party folks,” said David Daniel of Stop Tarsands Oil Pipelines (STOP), a landowner collective formed to oppose the project. The pipeline would cut through the middle of his property. “Doesn’t matter who you are, everybody needs water.”
And tea party activists start to sound like liberals when asked about the involvement of Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers that has backed the pipeline.
“You’ve got Americans for Prosperity out there promoting this and saying we want you to put in comments in favor of the pipeline,” said Terri Hall of Texas Uniting for Reform and Freedom. “Anyone who’s done five minutes of research will find out that not only are the Koch brothers involved in this, TransCanada has never made any promises that this is going to be domestic energy.”
Koch Industries is heavily invested in Canadian oil sands exploration.*
“Americans for Prosperity is not a tea party group,” said Medina. “Americans for Prosperity says, ‘Koch funds us, this is good for the Koch brothers, so we’ll support it.’ There are a lot of wolves in sheeps’ clothing masquerading as tea party groups.”
Some local tea party activists do support the pipeline, arguing that eminent domain issues can be handled.
“I strongly support the project; however, TransCanada should be held accountable for both safety compliance and in regard to private property rights,” said JoAnn Fleming, who chairs a group of tea party members that advises state legislatures.
Landowners say the TransCanada refused to work with them to minimize damage, as oil companies normally do, and that not enough research was done on potential water contamination.
“There are folks in East Texas who are wary of working with ‘environmental organizations,’ but the statewide organizations are more wary of letting these groups be divided over silly distinctions,” said Trevor Lowell of Public Citizen. “They’re going above and beyond. They’re pretty independently frustrated about this whole project.”
In Montana, the conservation group Northern Plains Resource Council is working with local landowners, who have formed the Northern Plains Pipeline Landowners Group to oppose the pipeline’s current path project.
The pipeline has created some strange bedfellows — an alliance of convenience that could have local implications, even if another such national victory is unlikely.
* This article originally stated that Koch Industries “stands to gain significantly from the project,” citing this InsideClimate article. The Columbia Journalism Review found that while the author was “probably right,” there is no proof that Koch Industries will profit from this pipeline. Koch Industries denies supporting the project, although they are interested in it. A Koch subsidary filed for “intervenor” status with the National Energy Board of Canada, citing a “direct and substantial interest in the application.”
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