Pay to Play: the Keystone XL pipeline

Jeff Koterba cartoon for February 5, 2014 "Obama Keystone Pipeline"

President Barack Obama announced today his administration’s denial of TransCanada’s permit to build the Keystone XL pipeline.

“It became a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel used by both parties rather than a serious policy matter,” Obama said.

He ought to know. It was his administration that turned it into a dollar-driven political football.

TransCanada Corp submitted an initial application to build the project to the U.S. State Department on September 19, 2008, 2605 days ago.

TransCanada knew the review process might take some time, but expected it to be generally non-controversial and to end with approval.

But nothing in ideology-riven Washington, D.C. is fast and simple anymore. Thanks to politics and the shrieking of special interest groups, the project became a pipe dream.

It’s been a hard lesson for TransCanada – and an expensive one that illustrates how lobbying and political contributions have become such a growth industry.

When TransCanada submitted its application it didn’t even have a full-time lobbyist in Washington, D.C. It took the company almost four years to open a Washington office in June 2012.

By that time environmentalist opponents had pounced, raising the issue to political and public prominence. In November 2011, for example, thousands of protestors encircled the White House and demanded that President Obama deny TransCanada’s application.

“…in just a few years, the political debate over Keystone has exploded into an entire sector of the Washington influence economy. Funded by multibillion-dollar oil companies, labor unions and ultrarich environmentalists, the fight has filtered into every crack and crevice of the nation’s capital,” Politico reported.

The Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets, says 163 clients reported lobbying on specific issues related to the Keystone XL pipeline in filings covering 2006 to the present.

Exactly how much was spent by both sides of the acrimonious conflict is unknown, but Politico guessed it was well into the tens of millions of dollars.

In 2008, TransCanada reported spending just $190,000 on lobbying, Open Secrets reported.. Since filing its application, TransCanada has spent a total of $7,160,000 just on lobbying.

That’s on top of all the political contributions to members of Congress by the oil and gas industry, much of which has been tied to the Keystone pipeline in recent years. According to Open Secrets, that totaled $23,891,355 in the 2010 election cycle, $36,756,574 in the 2012 cycle and $31,381,383 in the 2014 cycle, overwhelmingly to Republicans.

Even the Canadian government and the Clinton Foundation have gotten in on the action. In 2014, Canada’s Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development agency, a pipeline advocate, donated $480,000 to the Clinton Foundation in anticipation of Hillary Clinton’s run for the presidency.

What a waste. In the end, Obama did what he planned to do all along.

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