New polls show major shift in public attitudes against Keystone XL tar sands pipeline

This blog was co-authored with Josh Axelrod, Law and Policy Consultant for the Canada Project

A few weeks ago, House Speaker John Boehner tried to paint the President as completely out of touch with the American people. Speaker Boehner, responding to a White House statement indicating President Obama would veto a bill that would force approval of the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, called those who oppose the pipeline "fringe extremists." Now, four recent polls released in the last two weeks demonstrate that it is Speaker Boehner who is out of touch and trying to sell a risky foreign project to an American public that is growing increasingly skeptical about its merits. The newest poll by NBC news indicates that support for the pipeline has waned considerably. Instead of forcing approval, Americans want the president to determine whether it's in the national interest in the first place. That's what the president is trying his best to do - through a longstanding process some in Congress want to skip for the sake of the oil companies. The public also wants decision-makers to take far more assertive action on clean energy. And the more the American public learns about heavy and climate intensive tar sands oil and the risks from their production, transport, and use, the less supportive they become.

A large majority of the American public believes the State Department's National Interest Determination process should be concluded before a final decision on Keystone XL is made. In a poll conducted by the Washington Post and ABC, 61% of respondents favored allowing the State Department's review to reach an end versus forcing approval. These results hardly support the notion that Americans just can't wait to have this pipeline built.

Another recent poll conducted by a partnership between The Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, revealed that American attitudes toward the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipelines are far from settled. Outright opposition stands at 20% of all surveyed respondents, while outright support stands at only 30%. Not surprisingly,opposition and support divide closely along party lines, with 50% of Republicans favoring construction as compared to fewer than 15% of Democrats. What is more interesting is the fact that the majority of those surveyed "neither favor nor oppose" the pipeline's construction, or remain "unsure." Does this, to use Speaker Boehner's words, make the 20% who oppose and the 50% who are undecided "fringe extremists?"

Another poll released today by NBC and the Wall Street Journal supports similar findings, with only 41% of those surveyed saying they "favor construction." On the other side, 20% outright oppose construction, while 37% "don't know enough to have an opinion."

What these polls show is something that NRDC has been tracking for many years: that the more the American public learns about the tar sands and the risks that attend their production, transport, and use, the less supportive of Keystone XL they become. And, as Keystone XL dominates the news cycle and the attentions Congress, they also learn about its paucity of benefits: it creates only a small number of temporary jobs, it exports foreign-produced crude oil through America's heartland to refineries that will export significant quantities to foreign markets, it facilitates the decimation of Alberta's boreal forests, and it would enable the expansion of carbon intensive tar sands development, undermining our ability to address climate change.

This list of realities and the impact they are having on the American public was made clear in another poll released last week by the Center for American Progress. Once again, the poll, which did not focus on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, drives home a simple point: Speaker Boehner and his party's unswerving support for dirty energy projects like Keystone XL is at odds with the priorities of the people they were elected to represent. Conducted to examine Americans' energy and environmental priorities, the poll revealed that strong majorities now support policies that will boost American use of renewable energy. In other words, the opposite of what the Republican led Congress is currently trying to do with its shortsighted Keystone XL legislation. In the poll, 80% of respondents felt that the U.S. should rely more on solar energy, while 73% felt the same about wind (while decreasing reliance on coal and oil). Other measures with strong support included air and water protection, public land protections, and increasing fuel efficiency. Once again, the complete opposite of Congress' current agenda.

These polls, and many that have come before them, make it clear that it is high time for Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to wake up and listen to the American people. They understand the threats of climate change and they understand the causes of those threats. Pushing blindly ahead, year after year, in support of a foreign tar sands pipeline that fewer and fewer Americans support is not in the national interest. What is? This week's polls suggest a relatively simple answer: policies that allow America to begin the great transition away from fossil fuels--support for homegrown solar and wind power and the development of other clean energies.

About the Authors

Danielle Droitsch

Senior Policy Analyst, Canada Project

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