Hillary Clinton came out against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project on Tuesday—calling it a distraction—and by finally announcing her long-delayed stance, unified all the declared Democratic candidates for president in opposition to the controversial pipeline.
While Clinton was secretary of state under President Obama, she had seemed amenable to the proposal by TransCanada to build a new line to deliver tar sands crude from suppliers in Canada to refineries near the Gulf of Mexico. As a candidate, however, she has dodged the question of KXL, a longstanding litmus test for many environmental advocates.
"I oppose it because I don't think it is in the best interest of what we need to do about climate change," Clinton said when a student at a campaign event in Iowa asked about her stance.
President Obama and current Secretary of State John Kerry have put off a decision for years, long after the State Department completed its final environmental review of its merits.
At a major speech in June 2013, Obama promised that he would not approve the project if it was shown to make the problem of climate change worse. Tar sands oil has a bigger carbon dioxide footprint than conventional oil, and the KXL line would support higher production in Canada.
Republican candidates support the pipeline, but Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former governor Martin O'Malley of Maryland strongly oppose it. Vice President Joe Biden, who has not decided whether to run, has mostly kept his own counsel on the subject, in keeping with the administration's wait-and-see approach.
Clinton's declaration would seem to make it hard for Obama to approve the pipeline, which would put him in opposition to the leading declared candidates in his party. His main climate adviser, John Podesta, is now with the Clinton campaign. At the same time, it doesn't increase the pressure on the president to decide.
Clinton, in her statement Tuesday, gave an elaborate answer that had plainly been thought out in advance. She put the KXL line in the context of climate change, but also cast it as a "distraction" from bigger issues, including the shift to clean energy, pipeline and rail safety issues, and other work that she said would create far more jobs.
"I was in a unique position having been secretary of state, having started the process, and not wanting to, you know, interfere with ongoing decision making that both the President and Secretary (of State John) Kerry have to do in order to make whatever final decisions might be," Clinton said. "So I thought this would be decided by now, and therefore I could tell you whether I agreed or disagreed.
"But it hasn't been decided, and I feel now I've got a responsibility to you and other voters who ask me about this."
"And 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 climate change," Clinton told the gathering in Des Moines.
"And unfortunately from my perspective, one that interferes with our ability to move forward with all the other issues," she said. "Therefore I oppose it."
A lot has changed since the KXL question arose around the start of the Obama administration.
The climate crisis has intensified, and scientists have said that if the world is to stay within a safe carbon budget, oil in the tar sands (and in the Arctic) should be left in the ground.
Meanwhile, the tar sands oil industry has entered a crisis of its own, brought on by the drop in the price of oil. Declining prices are biting into Canada's plans to expand tar sands projects.
Low oil prices also make cheap transportation by pipeline essential to keeping the tar sands industry profitable. That erases the argument that the tar sands would grow with or without the pipeline, and the notion that KXL would have no impact on future emissions.
The oil boom has also created a glut of domestic U.S. production, making Canadian supplies less vital than they once appeared to U.S. energy security.
In sum, the political, economic and scientific considerations have conspired to make Clinton's decision an easy one.