Hillary Clinton completed the biggest environmental conversion of her presidential campaign to date on Tuesday, pronouncing herself opposed to the controversial Keystone XL pipeline as a “distraction” in the fight against climate change.
Clinton’s newfound stated position on Keystone – offered up during an event in Iowa – follows months in which she has refused to divulge her views on the controversial project, claiming it would be inappropriate as a former member of Barack Obama’s administration.
On Tuesday, the former Secretary of State abruptly changed course, telling a student at Drake University in Des Moines that she now opposed the project.
“I think it is imperative that we look at the Keystone pipeline as what I believe it is, a distraction from the important work we have to do to combat climate change, and unfortunately from my perspective one that interferes with our ability to move forward to deal with all the other issues,” Clinton said.
“Therefore, I oppose it and I oppose It because I don’t think it’s in the best interest of what we need to do to combat climate change.”
Responding to Clinton’s intervention, TransCanada said in a statement that its focus “remains on securing a permit to build Keystone XL”. “Pipelines are the safest and least greenhouse gas-intensive way to transport needed Canadian and American crude oil to Americans – safer than rail,” the company claimed.
Clinton, as secretary of state, came under attack from campaigners for saying in 2010 that she was inclined to support the project, and for promoting fracking abroad. On the campaign trail, however, Clinton had claimed it would be inappropriate to express her views on Keystone given her recent service in Barack Obama’s administration.
Hillary Clinton has refrained from making her position public before now because, as the Secretary of State who initiated the review of the Keystone XL pipeline, she is in a unique position compared to other candidates.
Clinton’s campaign aide, who emailed reporters on the condition of anonymity, repeated that excuse, but did not say why the Democratic frontrunner had chosen to break her silence now – other to say “she owes it to the American people to make it clear where she stands on this issue”.
In Iowa, Clinton she said the process had dragged on for so long – seven years – that it was time to go on the record with her views. “I thought this would be decided now, and I could tell you whether I agreed or disagreed. But it hasn’t been decided,” she said.
Clinton’s comments, of course, arrived at the start of a six-day papal visit to the US that is putting the focus squarely on climate change. They also mark the second time in a month that she has tried to stake out a more liberal position than Obama on the environment.
Her opposition to Keystone XL appeared intended to blunt attacks on Clinton from insurgent candidate Bernie Sanders, who is mounting a solid challenge against the frontrunner in Iowa and New Hampshire.
While in Barack Obama’s cabinet, Clinton had signalled support for the project to transport crude from the Alberta tar sands to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast, telling an audience in San Francisco in October 2010 she was “inclined” to give TransCanada, the Canadian pipeline company, the go-ahead to expand Keystone.
“We’re either going to be dependent on dirty oil from the Gulf or dirty oil from Canada,” she said at the time.
In 2010, those views reflected the political mainstream but in the heat of a primary campaign they left Clinton open to criticism from liberal Democrats. Sanders was quick to point out on Tuesday that his opposition to the Keystone pipeline has been longstanding.
“As a senator who has vigorously opposed the Keystone pipeline from the beginning, I am glad that Secretary Clinton finally has made a decision and I welcome her opposition to the pipeline,” he said. “Clearly it would be absurd to encourage the extraction and transportation of some of the dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet.”.
Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland who is also seeking the Democratic nomination, called out Clinton for political caution. “I oppose #KeystoneXL because it’s bad for our environment and we need to move to a clean energy future,” O’Malley said on Twitter. “Leadership is about forging public opinion, not following it. On #KeystoneXL, @HillaryClinton has followed.”
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who is seeking the Republican nomination, waited no time to attack his Democratic rival, saying her decision confirms that she “favors environmental extremists over US jobs”.
NEW: Clinton comes out against the #KeystoneXL pipeline. "Therefore I oppose it," she says.
— Dan Merica (@danmericaCNN) September 22, 2015
Over the years, campaigners have used the pipeline as a powerful organising symbol, arguing the transport network would further unlock the vast reserves of the Alberta tar sands, and set the world on a course of dangerous climate change.
In recent months, however, as low oil prices reduced the economic viability of further tar sands expansion, campaign groups have turned away from Keystone and shifted their energies to opposing Obama’s decision to allow Shell to hunt for oil in the Arctic.
Clinton has been charting out a new course on the Arctic as well, making a definitive break with Obama on his policy. In a tweet last August, a day after Obama gave final approval to Shell drilling in the Chukchi Sea, Clinton said: “The Arctic is a unique treasure. Given what we know, it’s not worth the risk of drilling.
However, it is unclear if Clinton’s opposition to Arctic drilling, and support of Keystone pipeline, will assuage liberals who accuse her of political maneuvering in the face of a surprisingly successful challenge from Sanders.
While declaring climate change the most “consequential, urgent, sweeping collection of challenges we face as a nation and a world”, Clinton has faced suspicion from liberal elements in the party because of her close connections to the oil and gas industry.
Nearly all of the top bundlers to Clinton’s presidential campaign lobbied against climate change regulations, or in favour of offshore drilling and oil exports, according to financial disclosures last July. Those bundlers included lobbyists for Exxon, Chevron, BP and other oil and gas companies, as well as a former lobbyist for TransCanada. Last June, Clinton was criticised for hiring a former TransCanada lobbyist, Jeff Berman, as a consultant.
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