Randy Evans is neither an energy lobbyist nor an environmental activist. Like most ordinary Americans, the outcome of the Keystone XL pipeline project doesn't keep him up at night.
But earlier this month, Mr. Evans, the editorial page editor for the Des Moines Register in Iowa, decided it was time to weigh in on the controversy. In restrained Midwestern fashion, his newspaper came down in favour of the pipeline.
"Stopping the pipeline will not stop oil drilling or consumption," noted its editorial. "We need to find alternatives to oil rather than trying to cut it off at the source."
Far from the heated debates of Washington, the middle-of-the-road view of Canada's marquee oil project leans toward the positive. In local editorial pages across the United States, TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL pipeline is receiving broad – though not enthusiastic – support, with a few exceptions.
The Canadian oil sands industry considers the pipeline a critical conduit for moving its product to U.S. refineries, and a way to fetch better prices. In the United States, the proposal has sparked a clash between those who say burning Alberta's carbon-laden oil will accelerate global warming and those who contend the pipeline will spur economic growth and create jobs. Unexpected events could also influence the debate, such as the news on Tuesday that waste water had leaked from a ruptured pipe at Suncor Energy Inc.'s oil sands plant.
The public and bitter disagreement over the merits of the pipeline tends to obscure the fact that according to opinion polls, a majority of Americans approve of the project (although the numbers of those opposed to it are creeping higher, according to one survey).
In a national opinion poll conducted in January by Rasmussen Reports, 59 per cent of those surveyed supported building the pipeline, 28 per cent opposed it and 13 per cent said they were unsure. In another carried out the same month for the National Journal, a Washington weekly magazine, 64 per cent favoured the pipeline's construction and 22 per cent opposed it.
None of that may prove decisive in the final calculus. U.S. President Barack Obama must weigh not only the project's costs and benefits but also the political fallout from any decision, particularly from his supporters, who include environmental groups dead set against the pipeline.
For editorial writers, the task is different – to inform and shape public opinion. A search of newspaper editorials from Virginia to North Dakota to California turned up 22 pro-Keystone pieces since the start of the year compared to three anti-Keystone views, which were published in The New York Times, Baltimore Sun and Sacramento Bee.
Some of the papers that adopted stances in favour of the pipeline come from oil country – Texas, for instance – but they also pop up in less expected places like New Jersey and Michigan.
For Mr. Evans in Des Moines, the decision to go ahead with the editorial was linked to a report from the U.S. State Department, that indicated the pipeline was unlikely to have a substantial impact on climate change.
"The concerns of the U.S. government have been addressed," Mr. Evans said. "It seems like it's time to move on."
The editorial produced a strong response. "We've received a fair amount of feedback from readers who were not blown away by our analysis of the issue," he said dryly. The paper subsequently published three letters to the editor condemning its stance ("Essentially, the Register joins many from the powerful energy industry urging us to passively commit mass suicide," wrote one reader; "We can stick our collective head in the tar sands or we can wake up before it is too late," wrote another.)
As with many issues, all politics is local – particularly for editorial boards. The News Tribune, a paper in Tacoma in Washington State, recently published an editorial in favour of the Keystone project.
"The planned pipeline is both safer and cleaner than the probable alternatives, which include relentless rail shipments to a fleet of tankers in Northwest waters," it noted.
Patrick O'Callahan, the paper's editorial page editor, said his interest in the project began about six months ago, when he became aware that Canada could route oil to places like Vancouver if Keystone is rejected.
"The western option starts to look kind of close by," Mr. O'Callahan said. "There are a few buttons there that this started to push."
He added that he appreciates the arguments made by the pipeline's opponents. "If you believe that you could keep that tar sands oil in the ground by denying a permit through the Great Plains, it would make a lot of sense to fight like crazy," he said. But "I'm seeing that as kind of utopian."
With only a few months left before a decision is expected on the pipeline, both sides of the debate are rolling out vocal and visible campaigns to sway perception of the project. This month, activists have held protests at the U.S. offices of TransCanada and more are planned, including at branches of Toronto-Dominion Bank across the country.
Public opinion appears somewhat malleable on this issue – in both directions – especially since the majority of Americans aren't following it closely. The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental non-profit in Tucson, Ariz., commissioned a poll earlier this month where it posed a series of questions highlighting the potential ecological impacts of the project, including the possibility of spills and the contribution to greenhouse gases. Then it asked whether those surveyed approved of the project: 50 per cent approved, 42 per cent disapproved, and the rest were unsure.
Conversely, a survey in February sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group for the energy industry, first asked respondents whether they supported importing more oil from Canada, rather than other foreign countries, to meet U.S. energy needs. Then it asked whether they supported building the Keystone pipeline. Sixty-nine per cent said yes.
FROM THE EDITORIAL PAGES
San Diego Union-Tribune, March 4
"The release of a State Department report on the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline … is seen as a green light for U.S. approval of the project later this year. The report dismissed apocalyptic claims about the downside of Keystone and said pollution concerns could be addressed with proper regulations and oversight. That this was greeted with shock by greens reflects how environmentalism is more akin to a religion for some than a reasoned set of beliefs."
Houston Chronicle, Jan. 28
"Construction of Keystone had been scheduled for federal approval before last fall's presidential elections, but was postponed by the president due to objections from environmental groups. The election's over. The case for completing Keystone, which would bring heavy crude down from Canada for refining on the Texas Gulf Coast, is beyond further debate."
New Jersey Star-Ledger, Feb. 20
"Killing this pipeline would achieve nothing. It would deprive America of jobs at a time when the need is pressing. It would tremendously aggravate one of our closest allies and our biggest trading partner. And it would damage our efforts to wean our dependence on unstable or hostile regimes."
Williston (N.D.) Herald, March 16
"In recent months, Nebraska approved a route through the state and the State Department released a study showing the pipeline would not have negative impacts. With those hurdles out of the way, it is time to build the pipeline. Not only would it benefit North Dakota in creating a way to get oil from the Bakken to refineries in Texas, it would benefit the nation as a whole."
Washington Post, Jan. 23
"Mr. Obama should ignore the activists who have bizarrely chosen to make Keystone XL a line-in-the-sand issue, when there are dozens more of far greater environmental import. He knows that the way to cut oil use is to reduce demand for the stuff, and he has begun to put that knowledge into practice, setting tough new fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks. That will actually make a difference, unlike blocking a pipeline here or there."
Editor's Note: Patrick O'Callahan is the editorial page editor at The News Tribune, a paper in Tacoma in Washington State. His last name was spelled incorrectly in an earlier version of this story.