WASHINGTON — More Americans view the Keystone XL oil pipeline as a benefit to U.S. energy security than as an environmental risk, even as they say Canada should do more to reduce greenhouse gases in exchange for approval of the project.
A Bloomberg National Poll shows support for the $5.4 billion link between Alberta’s oil sands and U.S. Gulf Coast refineries remains strong, with 56 percent of respondents viewing it as a chance to reduce dependence on oil imports from less reliable trading partners. That compares with the 35 percent who say they see it more as a potential source of damaging oil spills and harmful greenhouse gas emissions.
A push by environmental groups against the project may be affecting public opinion: 58 percent of poll respondents say they want Canada to take steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as a condition for approval, with 32 percent opposing such a requirement.
“It’s cautious optimism that this would be something that would improve U.S. energy security, outweighing the concerns,” says Ann Selzer, whose Des Moines, Iowa-based Selzer &Co. surveyed 1,004 U.S. adults from Dec. 6-9. “But obviously if you can stem the concerns, why wouldn’t you?”
The Keystone project has become a barometer for some environmental groups on President Barack Obama’s commitment to addressing climate change.
The State Department is overseeing the review of the pipeline because it crosses an international border. The agency is preparing a final version of an environmental review that will assess whether Keystone would contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, which many scientists believe are warming the planet.
A draft of the report released in March found Keystone would have only a minimal impact on climate change because the oil sands would continue to be extracted even without the pipeline.
Obama said in June that he wouldn’t approve the project if it significantly exacerbated the “problem of carbon pollution.”
The final environmental impact statement starts a 90-day process by the State Department to determine if the project is in the nation’s interest.
The poll also asked respondents why they think the administration has yet to make a decision on the pipeline. More than twice as many — 61 percent versus 28 percent — blame the delay in approving the pipeline on potential political problems it would create with environmental groups rather than on “legitimate concerns” about an increase in carbon emissions.
The Bloomberg National Poll results reflect other surveys that show a majority of Americans support Keystone, first proposed by Calgary-based TransCanada Corp. more than five years ago. The project under review stretches 870-miles from the Canada-U.S. border to Steele City, Neb., where it would connect to an existing network of pipelines reaching the Gulf Coast.
A September poll from Pew Research Center found that 65 percent of Americans favored building the pipeline, while 30 percent opposed it.
Sabrina Whitehead, 44, a Bloomberg poll respondent from Bastrop, La., opposes Keystone because she says she’s concerned that a spill would harm wildlife and that carbon dioxide emissions could worsen the effects of climate change.
“We get some weather down here we ain’t used to,” says Whitehead. “We’re usually in shorts. Now we’re in long johns and long sleeves.”
Lynn Hatcher, 50, of Pitsburg, Ohio, says she backs the pipeline for its economic benefits and sees it as an alternative to oil imported from unfriendly countries.
“We get along with them better,” she says, referring to Canada. Hatcher acknowledges that her opinion would be different if Keystone was going to run through her property.
“There’s a difference between having it in my backyard and having it at a distance,” she says.
The poll shows a party split on the issue. Respondents who identify themselves as Republicans are more likely to view Keystone as an opportunity to improve U.S. energy security, with 70 percent taking that view compared with 25 percent who consider it more of an environmental risk.
Support is slightly higher among those who identify with the tea party, which favors smaller government and less regulation. Seventy-five percent of tea party respondents back Keystone, while 23 percent see it as an environmental risk, according to the poll.
Respondents who identify themselves as Democrats were evenly split on Keystone, with 44 percent viewing it favorably and 44 percent seeing it as an environmental hazard.
Obama rejected the initial application for Keystone in January 2012, citing concerns from Nebraska state officials that the project threatened a sensitive wetland area and an aquifer that is an important source of drinking water.
In response, TransCanada split the project in two. The top half was rerouted further east in Nebraska to address environmental concerns. This section is under review. Construction on the southern leg of the pipeline has been completed and it is operational.
The Bloomberg poll has margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. Findings from subsets, including tea party responses, carry a larger margin of error.