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Democrats Are Doing Republicans a Favor by Pretending Keystone Is About Jobs

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

As promised, Republicans’ first order of business in Congress this week is a bill to fast-track approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from Canadian tar sands down to Gulf Coast refineries. One month ago, then-Majority Leader Harry Reid allowed a similar vote on the pipeline that split Democrats and fell one vote short of overcoming a filibuster. This time, it should have an easy path to 60 votes.

But Democratic leadership also hope to present a more united front on the issue this time around. In a letter to colleagues on Sunday, Senators Chuck Schumer and Debbie Stabenow, leaders of the Democratic Policy and Communications Center, laid out five ideas for “amendments that create a clear contrast with the Republican majority.” These are old ideas in new packaging, and they don't set up much of a contrast with Republicans at all. 

Conservatives have based their support for the pipeline on two main economic arguments: It will create jobs and lower gas prices. Neither argument ever stood up to scrutiny. The most generous jobs estimate for Keystone was 42,000 temporary and mostly indirect jobs. If you count direct construction jobs, the number is closer to 4,000, according to a State Department analysis. On a permanent basis, Keystone will mean a few dozen jobs, according to the same analysis. The argument that the pipeline will lower gas prices was never true either, and that point is moot anyway: Gas prices have plummeted to about $2.20 per gallon.

The Democratic amendments won't deliver many more jobs, either, yet they're presented as a jobs plan. One proposal extends a ban on oil exports to keep the oil that's pumped through the U.S. in the country. Another would require only American-made steel and iron for the pipeline's construction. A third amendment would expand eligibility for the low-income home energy assistance. Schumer and Stabenow would "prohibit a State from permitting a foreign corporation" to circumvent Americans' property rights through eminent domain. Finally, they suggest an amendment that subsidizes home solar panels to ensure “for every job created by the pipeline, an equal or greater amount of jobs is created through clean energy investments." To offset the cost, Democrats suggest raising oil taxes.

"Why create very few jobs with the dirtiest of energy from tar sands when you can create tens of thousands more clean jobs using wind and solar?" Schumer said on CBS on Sunday. 

The better question is, why are we talking about jobs at all? Keystone emerged as a national issue when it became a symbol of climate change. Democrats ought to be marshalling their resources to remind people that Keystone is more about polution than it is about jobs. The pro-environment amendments have a slim chance at passing anyway. If Democratic amendments are hopeless from the start, they might as well go for bolder proposals, like a carbon tax, that will help at least to remind us of bigger things at stake than a few dozen jobs.