What Does Terrorism Have to Do With the Keystone Pipeline?

An explosion is seen as soldiers keep low in the foreground during a joint Pakistan-China anti-terrorist drill as they wrap up their two-week military exercise in Jhelum on November 24, 2011. PLA soldiers and Pakistani commandos from Special Service Group (SSG) participated in the exercise which was a display of the mutual commitment and resolve to fight terrorism, besides bolstering the ties between the two countries.  (National Journal)

The Keystone XL pipeline is highly vulnerable to a terrorist attack.

At least that's what opponents of the project want you to believe. The proposed oil-sands pipeline has yet to be built, and the Obama administration needs to sign off on the project before it can go forward. But environmentalists are launching a campaign to classify it as a national security threat. The claim opens up a new front in the public-relations arms race over the pipeline — and it's heavy on the hype.

NextGen Climate — an organization backed by billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer — commissioned a report detailing the potential for a terrorist attack on Keystone XL. The assessment is authored by Dave Cooper, a senior operative from the U.S. special forces team that took down Osama Bin Laden.

The report — released Wednesday — does everything it can to gin up anxiety that an attack could occur, but stops short of quantifying the actual risk.

It cites "an uptick in terrorist attacks against energy infrastructure around the world" to emphasize the pipeline's vulnerability. Cooper outlines a number of scenarios to illustrate how the pipeline's northern extension might fall victim to sabotage. And he argues that Keystone's national exposure could increase its chance of becoming a target.

"Right now, knowing the problems that exist, I wouldn't put the pipe in the ground," Cooper told reporters at a briefing Wednesday in Arlington, Va.

In an effort to raise the stakes surrounding the pipeline, however, the report leaves out crucial context.

Here's what it doesn't say: While terrorist attacks on energy infrastructure may be on the rise around the world, terrorist strikes on U.S. soil have declined dramatically in recent decades. Attacks fell from 468 in 1970 to just 13 in 2012, the latest year that data was available through the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.

During this time, the most likely targets of a terrorist attack in the U.S. were businesses, followed by private citizens and property. Attacks tended to take place in urban areas, and non-fatal events vastly outnumbered deadly strikes.

Cooper acknowledged that terrorist attacks on domestic pipelines have not historically been a major issue in the United States. But he emphasized that the U.S. should take a proactive approach to safeguarding national security, rather than waiting until a problem occurs to take action. He also cited an assessment issued by the Transportation Security Administration highlighting the potential vulnerability of domestic pipelines.

Yet while Keystone XL could fall victim to a terrorist attack, the odds of that happening in the near future are low relative to potential targets and past years' activity.

Environmentalists are all but certain, however, to steer clear of trends that might drain any of the urgency from their argument.

A spokesperson for NextGen said that a copy of the threat assessment was hand-delivered to a high-level State Department official currently involved in the national-interest determination of the pipeline on Monday. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer of California and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, were also briefed by the organization about the report earlier in the week.

It's not the first time the Keystone debate has been wrapped up in rhetoric — and it likely won't be the last. Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich called for the pipeline's approval in light of the crisis in Syria last fall, despite the fact that events abroad were not poised to significantly impact energy security.

And as the quest to win the public-opinion battle over the pipeline drags on, environmentalists and industry have had to get more creative.

This story has been updated.