Skip to main content

Tom Steyer, a San Francisco billionaire who’s also a major Democratic party fundraiser, has written to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, suggesting Canada’s aggressive lobbying for the project played a part in the ongoing government shutdown south of the border.J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press

Keystone XL doesn't satisfy U.S. President Barack Obama's environmental demands and should be rejected, billionaire activist Tom Steyer told a Washington summit he sponsored Monday on the controversial pipeline.

"Keystone XL fails his climate test and certainly is not in the interests of the United States," Mr. Steyer, wearing his trademark red plaid tie, told about 100 audience members.

The half-day forum, a collection of speakers and advocates mostly opposed to Keystone XL, gathered to answer the question: "Can Keystone pass the President's climate test?"

That reference was to Mr. Obama's speech last summer when he set the benchmark for the pipeline's approval. "Our national interest will be served only if this project doesn't significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution," Mr. Obama said June 25 in a major speech at Georgetown University outlining his climate-change policy. "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," the President added.

Both sides seized on the ambiguity. Keystone boosters claimed Alberta's vast oil sands reserves would get to market – and be burned – one way or another so the pipeline wouldn't add to overall carbon emissions. Anti-Keystone activists claimed the opposite; that the pipeline, by creating a cost-effective route to global markets and tidewater ports would underpin massive new investment and vast expansion of the oil sands.

On Monday, Mr. Steyer painted a grim picture of dire consequences for approval of Keystone XL, the long-delayed pipeline intended to funnel 830,000 barrels of Alberta oil daily to massive refinery complexes close to seaports on the Texas and Louisiana coasts. "A 'yes' on Keystone would mean more oil extracted, more carbon pollution," he said: adding: "we face irreversible changes that will come at a catastrophic cost."

Keystone will unlock massive further development of Alberta's vast bitumen reserves, he said. But the profits and benefits will go to big oil companies and China.

TransCanada Corp's $5.6-billion pipeline is "a great deal for China and oil-hungry nations where the oil will be exported [but] it will significantly contribute to the carbon pollution driving climate change," Mr. Steyer said. That, in turn, is a "threat to our national security" because of inevitable massive human migrations as a warmer planet floods coastlines and makes some areas uninhabitable.

Few of the arguments were new and Keystone XL proponents were unimpressed by the "summit" of like-minded panelists. "Tom Steyer's events are nothing more than closed-door PR stunts that fail to acknowledge the growing and diverse number of energy and climate experts saying that Keystone XL meets President Obama's climate test," said Matt Dempsey, of Oil Sands Fact Check, a lobby group backing the pipeline. "We hope President Obama will listen to these experts over a billionaire activist."

TransCanada was equally unimpressed by the summit.

"No one should be surprised that this political event has reached a pre-determined outcome," said Shawn Howard, a spokeman for TransCanada. "In fact, that outcome was announced within the first three minutes of Mr. Steyer taking the podium."

The bitter, and long-running, debate over Keystone XL may run on for some time. A final environment impact assessment is due from the State Department soon but any final decision will be made in the Oval Office.

Mr. Obama seems in no hurry, despite increasingly shrill Canadian government statements, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper's claim that he "won't take 'no' for an answer" irrespective of the U.S. process.

Mr. Steyer, who calls Keystone XL a "literal and figurative line in the sand" is among many who see the decision as a litmus test of the president's commitment to cutting carbon emissions on climate change. Meanwhile, solid majorities in Congress and among ordinary Americans back approval of the pipeline.

Monday's summit was co-sponsored by the Center for American Progress Action Fun and NextGen Climate Action, a group founded by Mr. Steyer to "act politically to avert climate disaster and preserve American prosperity."

Since retiring from the private sector, where he ran major investment funds, Mr. Steyer has emerged as one of America's foremost – and biggest spending – political activists on climate issues. He has backed various political campaign aimed at electing candidates committed to environmental and renewable energy projects.

A billionaire, Mr. Steyer has also joined Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and other very-high-wealth Americans in the so-called Giving Pledge in which they commit to donating the bulk of their wealth to charitable and non-profit activities.