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It's all about the framing: How polls and the media misrepresent the Keystone XL [tar sands][oil] pipeline

Liz Barratt-Brown

Posted February 4, 2012

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First of all, you won’t find tar sands mentioned in any of the polling.  And in most polls, you won’t even find oil.  It’s just the Keystone XL pipeline, no context, no mention of what it will carry, and certainly no mention of the environmental risks of building a massive pipeline to carry toxic tar sands sludge through the heartland of America to the gulf of Mexico, where it would be exported out of the U.S. 

The question asked by two recent polls, one by Rasmussen and the other by the National Journal, was more or less, “Do you support or oppose building the Keystone XL pipeline?”   And the Rasmussen poll also asks if job creation is more important than protecting the environment, posing these two goals as  oppositional. 

Most Americans don't see it that way.  In our opinion research and other opinion research, such as the major new survey in the West, Americans overwhelmingly believe that a strong economy and the environment can go hand in hand.  And they show a real concern for protecting resources, such as our water supply, from degradation.  But both the Rasmussen and the National Journal polls show a majority of Americans in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline.

But are they really?    

What if the pollsters changed the question to more accurately represent the actual project and inserted “tar sands oil pipeline”?  What if they described to the public that the pipeline would jeopardize one of America’s most important freshwater aquifers, the Ogallala?  What if they were told that a first pipeline just like the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and built by the same foreign company, TransCanada, had had over 12 spills in the U.S. (30 if you count Canada) in just its first year of operation?  What if they were told that the oil is not really oil but a toxic sludge that is largely strip mined from under the Boreal forest in Canada and has to be diluted with toxic chemicals and pushed through pipelines at high temperature and pressure in pipelines only regulated to carry conventional oil?  And what if the public were given the opportunity to choose a tar sands oil pipeline or increasing our reliance on homegrown renewable energy?

No poll has set this tar sands pipeline in any kind of context.  Instead most of the questions are preceded or followed by generic questions about jobs and the economy or with questions about whether the country is going in the right direction. 

So, without context, what do you think most Americans would first think of when asked about a pipeline? 

Jobs and the economy. 

And that is just the framing they have also been hearing again and again from the media. 

Take jobs as an example.  Job creation has been the major argument put forward by pipeline proponents.  Even though TransCanada is on record admitting that there would in fact be no more than 6,500 jobs over two years and only hundreds of permanent jobs, that has not stopped the company, the American Petroleum Institute, Republicans on the Hill and the Republican Presidential candidates from saying the pipeline would create hundreds of thousands of jobs and putting it forward as a national jobs plan rather than the single construction project that it is.  The jobs estimates have been so wild that Stephen Colbert couldn’t resist poking fun at the million jobs pipeline. 

Lots of Americans are suffering right now and jobs creation must be a top priority but at what price and who benefits?  The one independent study that has been done on the jobs issue, by Cornell Global Labor Institute, found that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would be a jobs killer because it would suppress clean energy jobs and because inevitable spills would cost jobs in other sectors of the economy.   When all of the risk is being underwritten by American families and the major beneficiaries are the major oil companies, you have to ask is this good for our economy in the long run?  Roger Toussaint of the Transit Workers of America said it best when he said, “We want jobs but not as gravediggers for the planet”.   

So let’s dig in a bit regarding what the public has been hearing.

Media Matters, a nonprofit organization that tracks the media, released a survey that analyzed coverage of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from August 1 to December 31, 2011.  They found that the media overwhelmingly framed the pipeline as a jobs issue.  In 33% of the broadcast coverage, the highly inflated jobs numbers were repeated verbatim.  In none of this coverage was any criticism of those figures mentioned.  It was not much better for cable news.  In 45% of the coverage, the figures were repeated verbatim.  And only 11% of the coverage mentioned any criticism.  Fox News repeated the jobs numbers more than all the other TV networks combined.  Print news was not much better, with 29% repeating the jobs figures verbatim and only 5% mentioning any criticism.

It also seems to matter who you interview.

Here is a figure that really made me shake my head  –79% of the time, broadcast news reporting on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline interviewed a pipeline proponent.  Only 7% of the time did they interview a tar sands pipeline opponent.  Cable news was not much better:  59% of the coverage featured proponents and only 16% featured opponents.  Print news did slightly better with 45% featuring proponents and 31% featuring opponents. 

And this was over the period of time when there were 1250 peaceful protesters arrested in front of the White House and then a few months later when nearly 15,000 people gathered and encircled the White House opposing the pipeline.   It was during the months when an Inspector General investigation was launched into the State Department mishandling of the environmental review. And it covered the period when the President declared that more environmental studies needed to be conducted to understand the risks of the pipeline to the American public and find a new route that avoided the sensitive Ogallala and Sandhills regions of Nebraska. 

Media Matters collected data on how jobs and energy security mentions compared to environmental mentions.  In broadcast, cable, and print respectively, jobs were mentioned 67%, 77%, and 68% of the time.  Energy security was mentioned 22%, 28%, and 54% respectively.  And environment was mentioned 17%, 34%, and 65%.  Coverage of the State Department mishandling of the review process was scarcely mentioned at all.

What’s more is that since Media Matters did their survey, the rhetoric around the pipeline has become even more extreme and even venues like the New York Times, which has been one of the exceptions in providing fair coverage of the pipeline, are running political stories about the pipeline that don’t include any environmental perspective

So it is not surprising that when Americans are polled by Rasmussen and the National Journal, where they throw out a few quick questions or maybe just one question on the pipeline, we’re getting higher than expected levels of support.  Given the Media Matters survey, I am frankly surprised the numbers aren’t worse.

I went to google Speaker Boehner’s statements on Keystone XL and I found that “Keystone” is actually one of the words most frequently associated with the Speaker (after crying, birthday song, and payroll taxes). That’s because he and the Republicans in Congress have taken up the pipeline as a holy crucible.  The reality is that the “Keystone Energy Project” – as he likes to describe it (notice we lose even the mention of pipeline) – is the top bidding of the oil industry.  After defeating the climate legislation on the Hill, there has been no higher priority.   And in addition to the lopsided media coverage, Americans have also been deluged with ads about the benefits of the pipeline.  

Fortunately, most Americans have a heavy dose of skepticism when it comes to the oil industry.  So maybe, just maybe, when people hear the pollsters’ question, they hesitate for a moment and wonder what is all this pipeline fuss really about

So what can we conclude?  I’d wager that if you ask people if they think building a new pipeline will create jobs, they will inevitably say yes.  But if you were to provide context and ask them if they wanted to risk their drinking water, greater energy self-reliance, and providing a future for our kids that does not trade off our climate and drinking water to line the pockets of the multi-national oil companies, I suspect they’d say no.   

There desperately needs to be an improvement in both poll taking and in media coverage so that there can be a fair and balanced debate about this tar sands mega pipeline.  So far, the debate has been anything but balanced and that does the American public a great disservice. 


Addendum:  On February 6, Politico reported that a Hart poll showed that once independents better understand the pro and con arguments for the tar sands pipeline, they agree with the President's decision to delay the pipeline by a margin of 47% to 36% (Democrats are already on side in strong margins).  They are particularly concerned that risks to water supplies from pipeline spills, especially over the heartland's Ogallala aquifer, be addressed.  The poll was conducted in late January in Colorado, Michigan, Iowa, and Ohio.

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George DouglasFeb 4 2012 11:49 PM

First of all the oil will NOT be exported overseas. It will go to refineries and be converted to products including gasoline. This oil will displace oil from the middle east and Venezuela sold to us by our enemies. Our cars will be running on gasoline 10 years from now. We need the oil. We need the jobs the pipeline and oil will bring. Why employ foreigners instead of Americans? Renewable energy is not viable right now and will not be in the near future if ever. If it were viable a commercial company would have developed it by now. If you want to use french fry oil to power you car, have at it. I will continue to use my big Ford V-8 F-150 pickup and use gas to fill it. I support the pipeline and so does my family and friends.

Liz Barratt-BrownFeb 5 2012 11:26 AM

Doug, thanks for your comment but Valero and other refiners have made it clear that exporting refined products from tar sands oil transported by the Keystone XL is part of their business plans. See

Renewable energy (or French fry oil for that matter) will only get a foothold if policies like the Low Carbon Fuel Standard are implemented. The oil industry is doing everything in their power to see that these policies are killed.

We are fighting for our energy future. There are better ways to power your pick-up that don't require getting oil from the Middle East or from Canada's Boreal forest but the playing field is anything but level at this point in our history.

BSFeb 7 2012 08:34 AM

Liz, linking to another biased article (that does not even list its sources) does not exactly prove your point. Do you have any real data to suggest that a significant portion of this oil would be exported?

Let me help you:

As you can see, the Texas Gulf Coast has an idle capacity of about 100-150 thousand barrels per day (less than 10%). And you're telling me that these refineries are going to simply start refining and exporting this oil? Don't you think it's more likely that they are going to import less oil from, say, South America or the Middle East?

Second, let's dispense with this BS that somehow the "foreign trade zone" status of Gulf Coast refineries is somehow significant. Refineries in the middle of the country, nowhere near a port, also have this status.

BSFeb 7 2012 09:06 AM


You criticize intellectual dishonesty while engaging in the exact same tactics.

Only a small portion of the Canadian oil sands area is strip mined. The vast majority is produced without disturbing the surface. And of those areas that are strip mined, these oil companies then required to fix the damange they have caused via remediation processes that will not be certified complete until the forest is fully re-established.

You further state that this oil is shipped at high temperatures and pressures, implying that this is somehow different than how other oils are shipped. Canadian crude shipped in other US pipelines is not heated. And it is not pumped at any higher pressures than any other product is pumped.

Do you realize that much of the oil in California (the "greenest" state in the country) actually is heated before it's pumped. Some pipelines safely carry oil as hot as 180F.

You then talk about bitumen being diluted with "toxic chemicals". But bitumen, as you claim, is already the dirtiest oil. So by your own logic, these "toxic chemicals", which are very similar to gasoline, are actually result in a mixture that must be less toxic than pure bitumen.

Lastly, while I do support routing the pipeline around the most sensitive part of the aquifer, there has never been a case presented as to HOW a spill from this pipeline could possibly contaminate the aquifer. In fact, I've never seen a case presented as to how any pipeline has ever contaminated any aquifer.

This oil is thick and heavy. It would not flow anywhere fast. And even if it did make it into the aquifer, it could still be cleaned up. An aquifer is not an underground lake. It is porous rock. The water in that rock, which flows much more easily than bitumen, moves no more than a few feet per year. The bitument would move less. Any spill would be cleaned up, and the risk of some sort of widespread contamination of the aquifer is zero. However, I'd be interested in any data that you may have used to come to your conclusion that might prove me wrong.

Midwest realistFeb 7 2012 11:53 AM


Have you ever seen a U.S. map showing the existing pipelines? Many if not most go "over" aquifers. I think you greatly sensationalize and exaggerate the "what if" scenario. A good understanding of science disproves most of your claims.

Renewable energy vs. petroleum energy? Let's be realistic, renewables barely put a dent in our current energy needs and won't have a cost-effective impact on these needs for decades, if ever. The alternative is to give up on technology and modern conveniences and move back into the go first.

Will a portion of this crude be refined in the U.S. and exported to other countries? Who really knows, it depends on which political party and organization you listen to. Common sense, for me anyways, suggests that an energy hungry country such as ours will not export energy that we desperately need. Regardless, this would sustain and create jobs.

Whether it's 6,500 or 65,000 jobs, these would be excellent, well-compensated positions at a time when our country needs them. It is apparently easy for you to diminish the importance of these jobs when you are presumably employed. Would I take the risks of a new pipeline over not worrying about how to provide for my family? Hell yes!

Liz Barratt-BrownFeb 7 2012 09:50 PM

I suggest that those who question statements I have made in my blog either about extraction upstream or about the impacts of a spill or other issue spend some time surfing the web for impartial material. Almost all of the "facts" cited above are arguments made by the extraction industry. You can start with for upstream impacts. And you can also read what Environment Canada has to say about impacts (Canada's EPA). For the pipeline, review Stansbury's analysis ( of impacts of a spill or google what is happening on the Kalamazoo River that remains closed a year plus after a major tar sands pipeline spill occured in the river. For job creation, I suggest that you read the Cornell report that I cite and see the impact that the Kalamazoo spill has had on other economic activity on the river. There are other jobs that are lost when these devastating spills occur. Our clean energy sector is growing twice as fast as other sectors of our economy, employing over 2.7 million Americans (more than the fossil fuel industry). We should be doing everything to encourage that growth. This pipeline, and this oil, takes us backwards.

Jeff DixonFeb 8 2012 11:53 AM

@BS at 8:34

You complain about bias, but you didn't bother to vet your own statements for bias: If you made the effort to click the link to the full report, you would see that it includes 33 end notes, so your statement that no sources are listed was false and careless at best. Maybe if you posted with your real name instead of a vulgar and abusive handle, it would motivate you to be more careful to check your facts?

BSFeb 8 2012 01:32 PM

Jeff--You're right. I apologize. I don't know how I overlooked the nice blue link to the full report. A little embarassing....

Not having the time to address or read the whole thing, I'll address just a couple pieces, the Appendix about Valero.

First, we're talking about a pipeline that will ship up to 900,000 barrels/day of oil to the Texas Gulf Coast that has a spare capacity of about 125,000 barrels/day. Do you see how it is impossible to refine and export all that oil? Even if they can get to 95% utilizatoin, that's about 65,000 barrels/day that could be exported.

Second, a few refineries up in the Northeast are on the verge of closing (although perhaps they won't). If that happens, the Gulf Coast refineries will have to take up the slack and exports will decrease.

Third, what is wrong with exporting fuel? If we don't do it, another country will. These exports provide jobs to Americans and may even help preven the closure of several refineries up in the Northeast.

In any case, yes, I'm certain some of the oil will get exported. However, we're still talking about up to 800 thousand barrels/day or more of oil that will simply displace oil imported from overseas, making us less dependent on sources of oil that are more unstable.

On page 5, they say that most pipelines ship oil based on whoever offers to pay the most. This is not true. Most pipelines are "common carrier" pipelines that operate based on published tariffs. If you don't believe me, as I said the tariffs are published an you can look them up.

The reason Keystone was built based on upfront shipper committments is because it was the only way to justify the investment and get financing from banks or investors. However, this pipeline will also be a "common carrier" pipeline (it's required) meaning others can ship and it will have published tariffs. There is nothing wrong with this setup and has absolutely no bearing on whether it should be built or not.

In fact page 5 completely contradicts the NRDCs claim that shippers will take barrels off of the existing Keystone line and put them on the new XL line. So I'm glad you pointed me towards this report. That's another problem with having an agenda and twisting the facts to support it. NRDC needs to do a better job coordinating its misinformation....

Lorne StockmanFeb 8 2012 02:16 PM

@BS You seem to have an agenda yourself. Liz's and mine (I'm the author of the export report you're critiquing) is obvious, we work for environmental organizations because we care about the environment. What's your agenda? Who do you work for?

The export report does not seek to judge whether petroleum product exports are a good or bad thing for the US economy. It is a response to the claims made by Keystone XL proponents that the pipeline would enhance US energy security.

We show how the specific refineries planning on processing KXL oil are the same refineries that are increasing their yield of diesel fuel for the export market. In a subsequent report, co-published with NRDC - we explore this further.

Gulf coast refining capacity is expanding, it's grown more than 1 million b/d since 2000 and is about to add 325,000 b/d when the half Saudi-owned (Motiva is 50% Shell/Saudi Aramco) Motiva refinery finishes its expansion project later this year.

US petroleum product exports have grown 134% sine 2007, reaching 3.1 Million b/d in the last quarter of 2011. 73% of which (2.2Mb/d) comes out of the Gulf Coast. The growth is not in low quality products like PetCoke or residual fuel but in gasoline and diesel. US refineries produced record quantities of diesel last year as they reconfigured to serve the international market for this product. (You can check EIA stats for all these figures)

Currently, over 25% of Gulf Coast refining capacity is being exported. This is expected to rise as US demand goes into decline and international demand continues to rise.

We have never claimed that 100% of the pipeline's oil would be exported. That would be impossible to claim as the oil will anyway be mixed at refineries with other feedstock.

These facts do however undermine KXL proponent's claims that KXL will enhance energy security and particularly will somehow mean that the US will import less oil from other sources.

Oil delivered by KXL into the Gulf Coast will be in addition to, not instead of, oil from elsewhere. This is because the Gulf Coast is now an international refining center, driven as much by global demand as it is by domestic demand.

As I said, we don't make any statements about the pros and cons of exporting petroleum products. We just think people should understand the paucity of the industry's claims about energy security. The idea that the oil industry has the 'national interest' in mind as it goes about its business is so plainly false and shouldn't really need explaining, but in the face of multi-million dollar PR campaigns we do need to make an effort to keep the public informed about what's really going on.

BSFeb 8 2012 09:20 PM


I have worked my entire career in the oil industry. The company I work for probably stands to benefit from Keystone XL (although I'm not 100% certain of that). However, my loyalty to my company does not supercede my desire to always do the right thing.

When the oil industry does things wrong (and they sometimes do), I'll be the first to criticize them.

The only agenda I have is the desire that people make decisions based on facts and not myths. If I have any facts wrong, I'm always open to changing my opinion.

The export issue is a bit of a gray area as it involves predicting the future. However, you do need to consider that while USGC refineries are considering expansion, several in the NE are on the chopping block. Exports are a good thing, so even if 100% of Keystone's barrels will be exported, so be it. I'm ok with that.

How willing are you to consider that much of the info the NRDC is posting is not true? If so, I'd like to present some other info from the NRDC that is more black and white and see if you are willing to consider that it is not true. Please let me know if your are open minded and I'll do so.

BSFeb 8 2012 09:27 PM

By the way, what I want to discuss is the table on page 6 of this report:

Since it contains specific numbers, it's much easier to discuss whether it is true or false.

Please let me know if you'd like to discuss.

Doug WFeb 9 2012 07:07 PM

funny tar sands oil is toxic sludge but oil from bakersfeild CA and from Venezuela isn't?? Both use steam injection.

Any way yo are right that the majority ( slight)of oil sands oil comes from mines 53% so its split about half. Though in future the majority will be in situ or SAGD. Only the areas with less over burden can be mined. Mining projects costs more per barrel but use alot less energy so the payback is faster.

guthrumFeb 11 2012 06:33 PM

Just around the corner, probably in the next 3 years or before, hydrogen powered cars will be in the showrooms of major car manufacturers. For those who can’t wait, build your own! Most materials are available at local home supply stores and car parts stores. Directions are available on line and do not require an engineering degree from MIT to understand and construct one of these. Most people can complete them in two or three days and will see a 30% + improvement in gas mileage by using the hydrogen present in plain water! This will affect any emission inspections; in fact, the car’s emissions will be even cleaner. It is completely safe.

BSFeb 11 2012 09:42 PM

guthrum--Please take your spam and your car that violates the laws of thermodynamics elsewhere. The only thing "green" about your design is the green you're trying to steal from those gullible enough to fall for your lies.

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