Polls Show a Majority of Americans Now Oppose Keystone XL

Pew Research Poll, 2017

Co-authored with Liz Barratt-Brown, NRDC Senior Advisor

After years of public debate, a majority of Americans now believe that it is not in the national interest to build the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Given this, why is President Trump ramming through a project that Americans don’t want? As the debate over the pipeline unfolded in previous years, Americans learned more and more about the significant risks of pipelines like Keystone XL.  Now, they understand that tar sands—very unlike conventional oil—sinks in water. They now know that the pipeline would only generate 35 permanent full time positions, while putting America’s breadbasket at risk of spills in order to get tar sands to ports where most will be refined and exported internationally. They also understand that tar sands is one of the world’s dirtiest, most carbon intensive oils.  Trump’s State Department should see what most Americans have come to learn—the Keystone XL pipeline is a bad deal for the nation and should be rejected yet again.

According to the new poll released by the Pew Research Center, support for Keystone XL has plummeted over 20 points. The growing opposition in the Pew poll is starkest among Democrats and Democratically leaning independents who are now 76% against with only 17% supporting the pipeline. Women also oppose the pipeline by large margins—55% against and 33% supporting—as do young people—59% against and 29% supporting.

Why the shift in public support? The environmental review process conducted during the Obama administration unearthed new information that showed the project was not in the national interest. For example, experts showed the pipeline would open the flood gates to the expansion of the Canadian tar sands, the world’s dirtiest oil which poses major risks to climate and water. The climate impacts of the pipeline became a central issue in the rejection of pipeline but only after hundreds of scientistsNobel Laureates, and others weighed in to the public process. 

Another issue was about the impact of tar sands on water. Bitumen, the substance pushed through tar sands pipelines, sinks when spilled into waterways.  Major tar sands ruptures in Michigan and Arkansas have already provided alarming real world lessons in what happens when bitumen is spilled. The tar sands spill on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan for example will never be fully cleaned up. Ultimately, the National Academy of Sciences weighed in, confirming that bitumen sinks and is extremely difficult—sometimes impossible—to clean up. In other words, the review conducted by the Obama administration’s experts and with heavy involvement by the public found that the national was not the same as the corporate interest in building a pipeline. And that is why President Obama rejected the pipeline in 2015.

Unfortunately, America’s new president seems to want to bypass the process to determine whether the pipeline is in America’s national interest. This will completely avoid the critical  debate to ensure the U.S. makes a national interest determination instead of one to meet corporate interests. On January 24th, President Trump signed Executive Orders to expedite the approval of Keystone XL and the Dakota Access pipelines. The Executive Orders invited TransCanada to re-apply for the nearly 1,200 mile Keystone XL pipeline, and expedited the review for both pipelines.

NRDC has forcefully argued for years that bypassing the environmental review can be perilous. For example, after the pipeline was rejected, the National Academy of Sciences published a significant report on the impacts of tar sands on watersways. Expediting the process for the pipeline would mean the State Department misses key new information like this study about the impacts of the pipeline and public health and safety.

Moreover, a new environmental review is needed to account for the dramatic changes in the outlook for the tar sands industry, as lower oil prices and a global movement to address climate change has led Exxon to write down billions of barrels of tar sands reserves and companies like Statoil and Total to pull out of the tar sands entirely.

Very early polls taken by PEW asking a similar question about Keystone XL found that majorities favoring building the pipeline. Democrats and Democratically leaning independents, for example, in 2013, were 54% for and 35% against building the pipeline. The recent poll took place over February 7-12th and was conducted across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Over 1500 individuals 18 years or older were surveyed and answered either the Keystone XL or Dakota Access pipeline question. The Keystone XL question was, “Do you favor or oppose building the Keystone XL pipeline that would transport oil from Canada’s oil sands region through the Midwest to refineries in Texas?” Opposition has more than doubled in the last four years and support has fallen to 17% among this group and to only 9% among Democrats alone. 

With this new poll, President Trump’s push to expedite approval is even more concerning. Trump has said that climate change is a hoax and appointed climate skeptics to his cabinet and inner circle. That has raised alarm bells among the public who believe climate change should be a top priority. President Trump has also marginalized environmental concerns and minorities.

Federal approval of cross-border pipelines requires the President or his delegate, the Secretary of State, to determine whether the pipeline is in the national interest. Going through a deliberate public and expert process to answer that particular question is part of the job of a President. But instead, President Trump publicly invited a Canadian corporation to re-apply for a permit (already rejected by the Obama administration) and signaled he wanted to expedite the review process. How will the administration weigh this as part of the national interest determination?  President Obama’s administration conducted a lengthy and robust record showing the pipeline was not in the national interest and and now we have polls saying the majority of Americans do not want this pipeline. If President Trump wants to be a leader of the people, then bypassing a well-established public and scientific process isn’t exactly keeping with that vision. The pipeline was never in America’s national interest. With this latest poll, there should be no question about what the Trump administration ought to do—recognize this is really a pipeline that fuels corporate interests—not the American public interest—and reject the pipeline.