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On Thursday, Nancy Pelosi, the ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, said the oil that would flow to the Gulf Coast through Keystone XL ‘is for export.’ Supporters of the project, including major refiner Valero Energy Corp., maintain that’s not true.YURI GRIPAS/Reuters

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Growing support for the Keystone pipeline among Senate Democrats – 17 now back the controversial project to funnel Canadian carbon-laden crude from Alberta's oil sands to Gulf refineries in Texas – will cheer those who, like Prime Minister Stephen Harper, think giving the project the "green light" is a no-brainer decision for President Barack Obama.

But an examination of the non-binding, but nonetheless important, symbolic vote shows Democrat support almost entirely in so-called "red," "small-c" conservative states where progressives fare poorly across a range of issues. For Democratic strategists seeking a strong showing in 2014, that may matter far more than a 'No' decision upsetting anti-Keystone Democrats mostly in solidly blue states. For a president who will never again face election but is worried about his legacy, caring about the political fortunes of right-wing Democrats in a handful of heartland states may matter far less.

Americablog, among the nation's most-trafficked liberal advocacy sites, dubs the 17 pro-Keystone Democrat senators as "climate criminals" and – like California billionaire and environmental activist Tom Steyer – wants voters to punish them at the polls for backing the effort to import Alberta crude.

While Republican backing in the Senate is rock-solid and a majority of Democrats remain opposed, the 17 provide some insight into just how important, both in terms of symbolism and political consequences, Keystone has become.

For instance, every Democratic Senator up for re-election in 2014 – and facing a tough time – backed Keystone. In other words, there's a far greater political risk for "red-state" Democrats in opposing Keystone than perceived benefit from voters energized by environmental issues. As the Washington Post noted: Democratic Senators "who voted yes included every single possibly vulnerable incumbent facing re-election next year, from 34-year veteran (and co-sponsor of the resolution, Montana's Max) Baucus to first-term Senator Mark Begich (Alaska)."

The 62-37 pro-Keystone vote (one senator in the 100-seat upper house did not vote) marked a shift of six additional Democrats since a similar vote last year. The strident lobbying effort by big business and Canada, both stressing jobs and energy security, may be paying off. (Read our chart tallying the vote)

"Our number one priority needs to be creating jobs," said Mr. Baucus, whose father was a Canadian. "Approving the Keystone pipeline is the perfect opportunity to put Americans to work right now."

And Canadian oil is now regarded by many Americans as a domestic supply, a view fostered by the heavy lobbying of Canadian premiers and federal ministers. "The Keystone XL pipeline will create good-paying American jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil," said North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkam, another ardent Democratic supporter.

Not surprisingly, Democrats in states along the pipeline route backed it. So did those in states – like Alaska – where pumping oil is vital to economic health. But along the coasts, in densely populated, overwhelmingly Democratic states like California and New York where environmental issues resonate more strongly, there's little Democrat support among senators.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Keystone can be seen as another divisive left-right choice, pitting so-called progressives against conservatives. It's not just about big oil or climate change. The divide inside the Democratic Party involves a wide-range of issues. For instance, the nine Democrat senators targeted by gun control activists because of their opposition to President Obama's failed efforts to ban assault weapons are all Keystone backers. Similarly, the nine Democratic senators regarded as most opposed to same-sex marriage – another hot-button issue for the party – are also Keystone backers.

Paul Koring is a reporter in The Globe's Washington bureau.