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Lots of money to move lots of muck. That's how to build a pipeline.

It's also how to stop one.

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In the high-stakes fight over Keystone XL, Tom Steyer, the billionaire-turned-environmental activist can toss plenty of money into the fight to persuade President Barack Obama to reject the project to send upwards of $1-million barrels of Alberta's oil sands crude to Texas refineries. Big oil and its political allies (including in this case the Canadian and Alberta governments) aren't short of cash either and can toss a little muck too.

So while both sides piously claim the high ground – a reliance on science and selfless dedication to the public interest – not surprisingly, they define it differently.

That Mr. Steyer has waded into the fray seems to have unnerved at least Keystone XL backers.

In Washington there's now a not-so-quiet whispering campaign, along with some pretty blunt public statements, accusing Mr. Steyer of hypocrisy at best, and at worst, seeking financial advantage in his campaign against Keystone XL.

"There's a lot of hints of hypocrisy here," says Rep. Lee Terry, a Nebraska Republican and ardent pro-Keystone XL advocate whose web site boasts a clock saying the president has made Americans wait (so far 1743 days and still counting) to approve the pipeline and insure "jobs and energy security." Mr. Lee says that Farallon Capital Management, the company founded by Mr. Steyer still has oil and mining interests.

Louisiana Sen. David Vitter is even blunter. In a Fox News interview, he said of Mr. Steyer, "the fact is that he has billions of dollars of investments through his hedge fund in fossil fuels, (and) now he is launching this campaign against Keystone when his holding will benefits from the killing of Keystone … Those are just the facts."

The convoluted claim that Mr. Steyer wins financially if Keystone loses rests on Farallon's holdings in Kinder Morgan which has proposed a another pipeline to ship Alberta oil sands to Vancouver for shipment aboard. That project would be more likely – Mr. Steyer's accusers claim – if Keystone XL is rejected. Many oil sands development advocates claim more than one route to tidewater is needed anyway.

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Not surprisingly, Mr. Steyer – who has made stopping Keystone XL the immediate focus of his far broader campaign to raise awareness about climate change and the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions – rejects the accusations.

Through Chris Lehane, his spokesman, Mr. Steyer says when he left Farallon last year; he directed that his portfolio's holdings no longer include oil sands or coal. Mr. Steyer has also signed the so-called "Giving Pledge" along with Warren Buffet and Bill Gates and others pledging to donate "the vast bulk of his resources" to philanthropic and charitable groups.

Mr. Lehane said the divestitures included Kinder Morgan, adding: Mr. Steyer "does not have a direct financial interest in the Keystone project being rejected."

And the barbs fly in both directions. "Given that Senator Vitter has taken in more than a million dollars in campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry, he has about as much credibility on this issue as Fat Albert would have in offering weight loss advice," Mr. Lehane added.

That the Keystone XL pipeline controversy has reached this level of intensity – and nastiness – is a measure of the success of its opponents. What would have been, a decade ago, a routine pipeline approval, has become the centerpiece in a raging national debate over climate change, greenhouse gas emissions and the tradeoffs inherent in political decision-making.

Which is why President Obama's new and now quite-narrow definition of the criteria on which Keystone XL will be judged bears close scrutiny.

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No mention of jobs, nor energy security, nor whether Canadian oil is more "ethical" than oil from less-democratic places as one Canadian minister noted this week.

Rather the president said: "Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires finding that doing so would be in our nation's interests and our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution, …. the net effects of the pipeline's impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward."

That's still pretty fuzzy and will leave lots of room from protest and debate and accusations and more muck to be thrown over the next few months until a decision is finally made. Counting the "net" impact rather depends on whether, for instance, approving Keystone XL would spur further oil sands development while rejecting would leave more of Alberta's vast reserves uneconomic, perhaps forever.

Paul Koring reports from The Globe's Washington bureau.

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