It's 'Climate Week' on Capitol Hill, and the Keystone XL Endgame Is On

Houston Police addressing Keystone XL pipeline protesters in September Photograph by Aaron M. Sprecher/NoKXL via Flickr

As Congress convenes hearings on President Obama’s climate change initiatives (Wednesday), marks the fifth anniversary of the Keystone XL pipeline’s non-approval (Thursday), and takes in the president’s deadline for stronger rules on coal plant emissions (Friday), environmental groups are staging an impromptu Climate Week inside the Beltway—and out. As video has become the preferred mode for rallying cries, it’s starting to seem as if Al Gore infiltrated the programming booth at the Discovery Channel.

In August, the League of Conservation Voters launched a $2 million national ad campaign targeting climate change deniers, much as the National Rifle Association has singled out elected officials who favor stricter gun controls. The LCV has called out Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and GOP representatives Michael Coffman of Colorado, Dan Benishek of Michigan, and Rodney Davis of Illinois, running  spots in Wisconsin and the congressmen’s home districts. In the Johnson ad, images of flooded homes and out-of-control fires appear, then fade as a narrator notes that NASA and the U.S. military draw a connection between climate change and extreme weather events, and “they’re taking action.” Not Johnson, though, who is labeled a “denier” in all-caps on screen. “We conducted bipartisan polling that shows (PDF) that young people overwhelmingly will not support elected officials who deny climate science,” says Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs at the LCV.

More recently, San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer, who, as we’ve noted before, is a staunch opponent of the Keystone XL, has cast himself as a Jeff Corwin/Anderson Cooper type in a four-part series highlighting why, in his view, the Keystone XL is a bad piece of business. Standing beneath the hull of a oil tanker in Port Arthur, Tex., Steyer has his shirt sleeves rolled up above the elbow as he says, “today, we look at who profits if Keystone is built. Here’s a hint: It’s not America.” The first video aired during the Sunday morning talk shows—time he and his political organization, NextGen Climate Action, paid for. Earlier on Monday, Robert Redford provided a new talk-to-the-camera plea for a populist appeal to the president to kill the pipeline. (The White House gets to decide on the proposed pipeline extension because it crosses an international border; Redford previously thanked Obama for delaying the pipeline’s approval.)

Aside from opposition media worthy of an election, three enviro outfits staged a sit-in at the Houston offices of TransCanada, the company that wants to build the Keystone XL, which ended with 13 arrests earlier today.

“We had about 60 people turn out, and 13 … were willing to risk arrest,” says Becky Bond, political director for CREDO Action, one of the three groups behind the sit-in. “Among those arrested were teachers, a geologist, a couple of grandparents. We have the signatures of 75,000 more who have signed a pledge that they are willing to go to jail in acts of civil disobedience” if the pipeline proceeds, she says.

Climate change activists and Keystone opponents aren’t the only ones keeping busy. Last week, the Canadian Broadcasting Company reported that Prime Minister Stephen Harper had written to Obama, appealing to him about the pipeline extension and offering greater carbon reductions to secure his approval. U.S. senators Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), and John Hoeven (R-N.D.), meanwhile, have been grandstanding on the floor of the Senate in favor of the pipeline extension. They even added a non-binding, pro-Keystone resolution to the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill.

“This measure is structured as a joint resolution, putting both the House and the Senate on record that the Keystone XL pipeline project is in the national interest,” Hoeven told the Jamestown Sun, a North Dakota daily. “Energy independence is tied to national security and being independent makes us safer,” he said.

While Wednesday’s Energy and Power Subcommittee meeting looks to have the greatest potential for fireworks—U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy will be on hand, and both are steadfast on the need for a government response to climate change—Thursday’s confab in the Rayburn House Office Building is likeliest to continue the Keystone XL’s theater of the absurd. For one thing, it’s called, “Keystone’s Red Tape Anniversary: Five Years of Bureaucratic Delay and Economic Benefits Denied.”

Traveling to Washington for the red tape party is Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Nebraska, a coalition of ranchers, landowners, and environmentalists from red-state Nebraska opposed to the Keystone XL. The Keystone would travel through Nebraska and right through the Ogallala Aquifer, which is critical to irrigation in the region. “People always describe us as strange bedfellows,” Kleeb says of Bold Nebraska, which includes plenty of conservatives. “But we’re just a bunch of Nebraskans.”

Kleeb says that as she’s read-up on the Canadian tar sands (the oil deposits in Alberta that would keep the pipeline full), she’s grown to appreciate why activists have seized on the pipeline’s approval as a climate change issue. “But climate wasn’t our issue. Our three issues were protecting the aquifer, keeping the pipe out of the Sand Hills, and eminent domain—land use and land-owner issues.” Over the last couple of years, she adds, ranchers such as herself and her husband have realized that protecting their water supply has meant having to take an interest in energy. “And so, that’s why we just raised a barn [obstructing] the proposed route of pipeline. It’s solar and wind-powered. That’s the kind of energy we want to see.”

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