Fox News sets its hair on fire over cancelled Keystone XL pipeline
Over a nine-day period, Fox pushed misleading jobs claims about the pipeline 74 times
On January 18, major news outlets reported that President Joe Biden would likely cancel the controversial Keystone XL pipeline on his first day in office -- reversing former President Donald Trump's revival of the pipeline in 2017, after it was originally rejected in 2015 by then-President Barack Obama. The announcement prompted Fox News to swiftly dust off oil industry talking points promoting the pipeline, including those falsely heralding the project as a job creator.
That evening, still two days before Biden’s inauguration, prime-time host Sean Hannity told his viewers: “By the way, if you work on the Keystone XL pipeline, you have a great high-paying career job, it's probably going away. Destroying countless jobs in the energy sector. And of course now creating higher oil energy prices and, yes, more dependence on nations that hate our guts, like Russia, and China, and countries in the Middle East.”
Since then, Fox News hosts and guests have echoed Hannity’s initial reaction by relentlessly pushing the misleading narrative that canceling the pipeline would result in the loss of thousands of U.S. jobs; repeatedly claiming that Biden’s actions would cause higher fuel prices at the pump and destroy the energy independence that Trump supposedly achieved during his term (he didn’t); and claiming that Biden’s actions are proof that his administration is under the influence of radical environmentalists bent on destroying our way of life.
Over the course of nine days from January 18-26, the network mentioned Biden’s executive order to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline at least 132 times, pushing the claim that it cost thousands of jobs in more than half of those mentions. Absent from much of Fox’s coverage was any mention of the environmental justice or climate concerns that underpinned Biden’s decision.
Fox News is undeterred by debunked Keystone XL pipeline job claims
Fox News has maintained a steady stream of coverage on Biden’s executive order ending the Keystone XL pipeline, including consistently tying his action to the loss of thousands of U.S. jobs.
From January 18-26, Fox pushed the jobs narrative at least 74 times. Notably, 32 of these claims were made on the network’s so-called “straight news” programs -- and the vast majority cited the oil industry claim that the construction of the pipeline would create 11,000 jobs. But offering this industry estimate without context is extremely misleading. As PolitiFact notes, most of these positions -- 10,400 of them, according to the U.S. State Department -- would be temporary jobs “for seasonal construction work lasting four to eight-month periods”:
The State Department forecasted that no more than 50 jobs, some of which could be located in Canada, would be required to maintain the pipeline. Thirty-five of them would be permanent, while 15 would be temporary contractors.
On the January 21 edition of America’s Newsroom, co-anchor Dana Perino cherry-picked a number from the State Department report cited above to claim that Biden’s action eliminated “42,000 union jobs in the upper Midwest.” The number she used refers to a very fuzzy estimate of jobs that would be supported across the economy by the construction project -- and not actually tens of thousands of “union jobs in the upper Midwest.”
An article in The Washington Post from 2015 explains the estimate this way:
An appendix to the State Department report, for instance, says that 634 people would be employed in the “arts, entertainment and recreation services” in the United States as a result of Keystone — and only 138 of those jobs would be in the construction states. No single dancer in New York City is going to get a job because of Keystone, but just as the part-time work of the construction workers adds up to jobs expressed in annual terms, the economic model assumes some of that spending reverberates through the economy and eventually lands in the pockets of people across the country, thus contributing to a portion of their annual wage.
The January 18 edition of America Reports used a different number in its initial reporting, as correspondent Hillary Vaughn called the cancellation “a gut punch to the U.S. energy industry and also the estimated 20,000 jobs along with it.” This number appears to come from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as the same number is also mentioned in a recent blog by Heartland Institute director and Fox regular Steve Milloy, which links to a now-defunct page from the Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute website. The site also used the larger State Department estimate to misleadingly claim that “the proposed project would have provided approximately 42,100 badly needed manufacturing and construction jobs” but provides no explanation or source of the 20,000 jobs figure.
The bottom line is that Fox, unable to even accurately report inaccurate numbers, is misleading its viewers on what the Keystone XL pipeline would mean for American workers -- and not for the first time.
In late January 2012, a poll was released about how the media’s coverage of the Keystone XL pipeline had shaped public opinion. It showed that 78% of those surveyed said the pipeline would create “a significant amount of jobs.” A Media Matters study at the time underscored the role major media outlets had played in skewing the public’s perception of the project, finding that the media largely favored GOP talking points in their coverage of the Keystone XL pipeline. The vast majority gave a greater amount of airtime to proponents of the pipeline than to critics and portrayed the project as a “job creator,” often repeating discredited jobs estimates in the process. And we found that “Fox News uncritically repeated these numbers more than all the other television networks combined.”
In the years leading up to the Obama administration's initial denial of the permit in 2015, Fox News repeatedly pushed misleading claims about the amount of employment Keystone XL would create, crediting the project with up to 1 million new jobs. The network's reaction this time is more of the same, but now it’s playing out against an energy and climate landscape that looks very different.
Fox’s disingenuous outrage over the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline ignores economic reality while dismissing environmental justice and climate considerations
To be clear, the loss of any amount of jobs is not something to be flippant about -- it is unfortunate that cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline means the loss of temporary construction jobs in Montana and South Dakota.
However, Fox’s coverage is not brokering an honest discussion about jobs in the energy industry. Aside from deliberately inflating the number of would-be jobs from Keystone XL pipeline to bludgeon the newly inaugurated Biden administration, the network is mum about both the overall decline of the oil and gas industry on one hand and the growth of the renewable energy sector — which is essential to Biden’s plan to help decarbonize the U.S. economy — on the other.
Over 250 oil and gas companies have gone bankrupt in the U.S. since 2015, and the industry’s stock sector is the worst-performing on the Standard & Poor ratings over the last decade. In August 2020, Exxon Mobil was dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average, where it had been ranked for 92 years. At the time, a Politico energy reporter quipped, “So when do we stop calling it Big Oil?”
And despite massive subsidies and weakened regulations under the Trump administration, the industry has not rebounded and continues to hemorrhage jobs: Over 100,000 jobs were lost in 2020. Meanwhile, clean energy is the fastest-growing industry in America, and clean energy jobs pay well above the national average, provide good benefits, and can’t be outsourced to other countries. Moreover, a study by progressive think tank Data for Progress found that investing in bold climate and clean energy policies would likely create over 10 million more high-quality jobs over 10 years.
Biden’s action to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline did have some immediate impact on energy sector workers, but his administration is also planning a huge investment in clean energy jobs and is proposing a plan to assist communities and workers dependent on polluting industries that are in rapid decline. But none of this made it into Fox’s coverage of the pipeline cancellation.
Moreover, Fox failed to characterize the breadth of environmental threats and environmental justice issues from the project, including threats to drinking water sources of indigenous communities whose land the pipeline would intersect. In response to the cancellation of the pipeline, Angeline Cheek, a member of the Fort Peck tribes in Montana, remarked:
“We look at these pipelines as an act of genocide against Native people. Pipelines cross our reservations, causing destruction to our environment and our people. We can't live without water, and you cannot replace a life," she said.
“This is about honoring our ancestors' treaties and protecting our natural resources. As Indigenous people, we are the original caretakers of the environment, and we need to protect it."
Fox’s coverage failed to mention that the existing Keystone pipeline — a separate pipeline, constructed by the same company TC Energy, which has already been in use — has seen 21 documented oil spills and leaks since 2010, including some that leaked hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil and other toxic materials. Also absent from the network’s coverage of Biden’s executive order was the cost to the economy and jobs from the climate crisis, which would be exacerbated by the burning of fossil fuels the new pipeline would have facilitated.
But this context and these facts are inconvenient for a network committed to stirring up outrage and opposition to this administration and any progressive propositions. Unfortunately, it’s a likely preview of Fox’s coverage of the new administration’s environmental policies.
Every action Biden takes on climate and energy will get the same five-alarm treatment
While the misleading jobs claim has been consistent across Fox’s coverage of the Keystone XL pipeline, it is not the only false claim the network is leveling against Biden’s action. Over the course of its coverage during the studied time period, Fox has also repeatedly asserted that canceling the pipeline would result in higher energy costs and destroy the energy security that Trump purportedly achieved during his term. It won’t.
On the January 22 edition of America’s Newsroom, Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) called the Keystone XL pipeline decision part of Biden’s “Saudi Arabia First plan,” then later claimed the new administration is “yielding to the far-left, radical extremists.”
SEN. STEVE DAINES (R-MT): It is going to kill jobs, it’s going to raise energy prices, and there’s a very important national security element to this. You know, thank God that we've had this revolution in energy in America to reduce our dependencies in the Middle East. That’s very important in terms of our economy and our national security. This reverses that course and places dependence back on the Middle East.
Co-host Jesse Watters on the January 20 edition of The Five mocked Biden for not understanding energy markets in response to the canceled pipeline and asked, “Why would you drive up gas prices [and] alienate the Canadians just to kiss the butt of the Chinese and the people in OPEC?”
Actually, the price we pay at the pump is based on global demand, which is itself based on an ever-changing set of economic factors. The global pandemic caused demand and prices to plummet, which could start to rebound as economies across the globe begin to reopen -- but that has nothing to do with Keystone XL. As Tom Tunstall, research director for the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute for Economic Development, put it:
"If oil prices go to $4 a gallon, it will be for other reasons than the fact that the Keystone isn't under construction,” Tunstall explained.
He said the reason is due to other nations curtailing their own production, along with other market forces causing U.S. producers to cut back on the country's own production of oil.
And as long as our economy is tethered to oil, which is traded on a global market, we will always be susceptible to oil shocks and supply disruptions. Energy independence for the U.S. can be truly achieved only through switching to renewable energy sources.
Fox also suggested that Biden’s action was proof that his administration was under the influence of radical environmentalists (a narrative the network also leaned heavily on during the presidential election). For example, in one over-the-top exchange during the January 24 edition of Fox and Friends Weekend, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte suggested that Biden’s decision was influenced by “ecoterrorists weighing in with the president,” which co-host Peter Hegseth affirmed: “Yeah. When the Democrats got in bed with radical environmentalists, they had to make deals like this to appease them. And that's precisely what's happening with the Keystone XL pipeline, and workers get thrown under the bus as a result.”
Fox correspondent Dagen McDowell quipped on the January 26 edition of The Five that “Joe Biden is governing for Greta Thunberg” by canceling the pipeline, implying that he is kowtowing to the demands of environmentalists.
But all of this is again just more of the same from Fox.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Fox News played a key role in right-wing media efforts to echo and amplify disinformation about Biden’s climate plan and his statements on various climate proposals. Ahead of the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions, Fox News spent an entire month lying about Biden's climate plan -- airing 35 segments about it from July 14 to August 14, seven times the number that CNN aired and four times the coverage that aired on MSNBC. These unhinged and misleading attacks included the false narrative that Biden would ban fracking if elected.
During the week following the first presidential debate on September 29, Fox pushed false narratives about Biden’s support for the Green New Deal at least 48 times. These included claims that Biden had flip-flopped on supporting the Green New Deal and that his position on the proposal would drive a wedge between moderates and progressives. The network also continuously lied about Biden’s comments about the need to transition away from fossil fuels, promoting Big Oil takes on Biden’s comments from the final debate in 100% of the 92 segments the network aired about his statement from October 22-26.
This campaign to deceive viewers and toxify Biden’s climate policy mirrors the network’s unrelenting attacks on the Green New Deal. Since the ambitious climate proposal was announced nearly two years ago, Fox News has been propagating the same attack, repeatedly anchoring the proposal to “radical” socialism and economic devastation. Fox’s campaign has been so successful that the pro-fossil fuel right-wing, now labels “virtually every climate change effort as part of the Green New Deal.”
Keystone XL is the latest environmental issue to get the five-alarm treatment from Fox, but it won’t be the last.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on Fox News Channel for any of the terms “keystone,” “XL,” or “pipeline” from January 18 through January 26, 2021.
We included segments when Biden’s executive order was the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of the executive order. We defined significant discussion as a back and forth about the executive order between two or more speakers. We also included instances when a single speaker mentioned the executive order without any other speakers engaging with the comment as passing mentions. We did not include teasers for segments about the executive order coming up later in the broadcast.
Within those segments and passing mentions, we then determined whether any speaker asserted that Biden’s executive order would result in the loss of thousands of jobs.
We split Fox programs into “news” and “opinion” sides. We defined “news” programs as those with anchors, such as Bret Baier or Shannon Bream, while we defined “opinion” programs as those with hosts, such as Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham, at the helm. We used the designations from each anchor’s or host’s FoxNews.com author page. We also considered the format of the program; we defined those using a panel format, such as Outnumbered and The Five, as “opinion.”