5 Things We Learned From Today’s Senate Hearing On Keystone XL


The president’s decision on whether or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline is drawing closer, and if recent protests and hearings are any indication, the arguments around the issue are only heating up.

On Thursday, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing to discuss whether or not approving the Keystone XL pipeline was in the national interest, a decision that is now in the hands of President Obama. The hearing saw impassioned exchanges from Senators and panelists on both sides of the pipeline debate, but there were a few that stood out. Here are 5 of the most important lessons from the Senate’s Keystone hearing:

1. Tar sands oil could already be causing cancer in Canada. Sen. Barbara Boxer called for a health impacts study on tar sands during the hearing, quoting an Alberta study that found that a community near tar sands development sites in the province “continues to be disproportionately burdened with blood, lymphatic and rare cancers that have been linked to chemicals produced by the petroleum industry.” Other studies have found the same thing — one 2013 study published by researchers from University of California Irvine and the University of Michigan found incidence of leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in men was higher in communities closest to the oil and tar sands-rich “Industrial Heartland” of Alberta than in the surrounding counties.

“I want energy security, desperately,” Boxer said. “But we can’t do something in the name of national interest where it winds up costing us the health of our families.”

2. The Chamber of Commerce does accept that climate change is occurring, but doesn’t think it’s solely caused by humans. When pressed by Sen. Menendez on whether or not the Chamber of Commerce believes climate change is occurring, Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the Institute for 21st Century Energy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, admitted that there’s “no question” that the climate was warming, but when pressed further said “you can’t say climate change is only caused by humans.” She’s right — changes in climate are prompted by multiple factors, including changes in the sun’s energy output and on a smaller, more short-lived scale, volcanic eruptions. But a 2013 study found that 97 percent of scientific papers that take a stance on climate change agree that human activities are what’s causing the current warming of the planet.

“The man-made effect is now dominant,” climatologist James Hansen said during the hearing. “This decade is going to be warmer than the last one, and the following one will be still warmer.”

3. If the U.S. puts a price on carbon, tar sands oil would quickly be priced out. That’s what Hansen said during the hearing, saying that as soon as the U.S. puts a “significant and rising” price on carbon, “one of the first things that falls off the table is tar sands. And Canada knows that — that’s why they’re so desperate to get us to approve this. If we don’t approve it, a lot of those tar sands will never be developed.”

4. The Chamber thinks you can be an environmentalist and support Keystone XL. In fact, according to Harbert, if you’re an environmentalist, you should support Keystone XL, because pipelines pollute less than the alternative — shipping oil via rail. “Put plainly, given our practical energy reality, if you are in support of the environment, you are in support of the pipeline,” she said during the hearing. Her statement echoes those made by lawmakers including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) who said Keystone XL should be a no-brainer even for the “Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging Greenpeace activist.”

But Boxer disagreed. “You’re a great advocate, but you do not speak for environmentalists,” she told Harbert. “And when you said ‘if you’re an environmentalist you are in support of the pipeline’ — let me just say, that’s ludicrous on its face, please don’t speak for me, and don’t speak for lots of folks who don’t see it that way.”

5. Sen. Ed Markey is calling the oil industry’s bluff on energy security. Markey (D-MA) has long been a staunch opponent of Keystone XL, but during the hearing he announced that he would be introducing legislation that would ensure that oil shipped through the Keystone XL pipeline wouldn’t be exported overseas. “The least we should be able to say to the oil industry is ‘keep that oil here,” he said. “We should not be a middleman to transport the dirtiest oil in the world to the thirstiest foreign nations who are our economic rivals.”