The fact that Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., has fought so hard for the Keystone XL pipeline underscores the changing politics of oil: A global commodity has become a local issue.

“All I care about is working right now to get the most jobs for Montanans, and Keystone is a part of that solution,” Baucus said. “To me, it’s a no-brainer.”

Baucus has emerged as one of Capitol Hill’s fiercest proponents of the project, largely because the pipeline extension will mean that oil extracted from parts of Montana and North Dakota will have an easier route to Gulf Coast refineries.

He not only has lobbied President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — whose department is reviewing TransCanada’s proposal to construct a 1,700-mile pipeline between Alberta, Canada, and the Gulf Coast of Texas — but also pushed unsuccessfully last month for language in the highway bill that would have greenlighted the project over the administration’s objections.


For many groups, the question of whether to ship hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude from an area in Alberta known as the oil sands, or tar sands, is a national question of either economics or the environment.

Advocates say it will secure a reliable energy supply for the United States and spur short-term construction jobs — TransCanada estimates it will directly generate 5,000 to 6,000 jobs two years in a row.

Foes say that extracting energy-intense bitumen and burning it will accelerate climate change to dangerous levels by emitting a massive amount of carbon into the atmosphere and that a spill along the route could damage sensitive habitat.


But in the regions the pipeline would pass through, local concerns are more powerful. Many Nebraskans — including the state’s governor, Republican Dave Heineman — raised concerns last year that the initial route could threaten the state’s Ogallala aquifer, a critical drinking-water source, with a potential spill. Obama first delayed the permit in November and then rejected it in January in the face of a congressionally mandated Feb. 21 deadline.

Now TransCanada has proposed alternative routes through Nebraska. Heineman supports expediting the project, and the State Department is reviewing the pipeline again.

In Montana, the majority of voters back it because TransCanada has included an “on-ramp” that will transport Bakken oil to the Gulf Coast. The oil is currently moved on rail cars, trucks and smaller pipelines.

At first, Bakken oil will account for 7 percent of Keystone’s 830,000-barrel-a-day supply. TransCanada officials say U.S. oil could eventually account for up to 25 percent of the pipeline’s shipments.

“It is a key step that could ensure that the Montana product has an outlet, and they can drill at the same level they are drilling now,” said Tony Preite, director of economic development outreach for Montana State University Northern.

In October, a Montana State University Billings poll found that 64 percent of Montanans supported the pipeline, with 14 percent opposed and 22 percent undecided.

For Democrats such as Baucus and his Senate colleague Jon Tester, “they’re not going to get elected without significant support from the independents who support Keystone,” said MSU-Billings political scientist Craig Wilson, who conducted the poll. Tester faces re-election this fall; Baucus is up in 2014.


Many who are focused on rural development in the state see the Bakken oil field and Keystone XL as critical. Stefani Hicswa, president of Miles Community College in Miles City, Mont., has hired a full-time commercial driver’s-license instructor to train students to transport Bakken oil and the equipment needed to drill it.

“What we’re trying to do is customize our training for the companies in our area,” she said.

Al Ekblad, executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO, said the 800 construction jobs TransCanada predicts the pipeline will bring to the state for 18 months will provide not just wages but also health insurance and pension benefits that will help many of his members recover from the recession.

Not everyone in Montana has embraced the pipeline. Irene Moffett, whose farm and ranch were along the project’s route until it changed, remains concerned a spill could pollute the soil and water.

And she called the 60,000 barrels of a day of Bakken oil that Keystone would initially transport “just a drop in the bucket.”

“If they were going to put a pipeline in for the Bakken, that would be a different thing.”

Obama officials have not announced when they will make a final decision on the permit, but it is unlikely to be before the November election.