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Energy Voters as a Political Power

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Can the millions of workers in the U.S. energy sector, their families and neighbors, and the millions more whose lives are built on energy activities, be convinced to vote their concerns about an industry?

In other democracies workers in individual sectors often view their politics through their professional and industrial identities, while many recent election races in the U.S. have hinged on political identities rooted in social values as much as economic beliefs. While the U.S. energy sector remains one of the country's largest employers and most visible sources of economic vibrancy, its natural constituents rarely raise its issues in their lists of concerns politicians (and presidential hopefuls) should address.

Americans are accustomed to identity politics; can their identity as energy workers, producers and consumers outweigh other political identities?

The oil and gas industry has launched a non-partisan campaign this week in which it asks Americans to vote "for" energy. While Republicans remain the traditional party of business, and executives at the American Petroleum Institute were not shy about pressing the Obama administration on issues of importance to their member firms in launching their public awareness campaign this week, one of the most powerful energy voices in Washington decided to focus on the issues rather than the names that have dominated the early months of the 2012 political race.

In part that reflects realistic expectations that little will be achieved at the Congressional level or by politicians this year amid the turmoil and tumult of a hotly-contested national election. The industry's issues, ranging from tax policy to accessing reserve areas, are long-term issues requiring bipartisan agreement that are unlikely to be addressed by a deadlocked Congress.

The industry's first test of its new political approach may be the unlikely issue of the Keystone XL pipeline. In a country widely held to be facing at best an infrastructure mismatch and at worst a disastrous shortfall the pipeline's approval was held until a few months ago to be a done deal, but has become a political football wracked by controversies over safety and environmental impacts.

The Keystone pipeline is a "bright line" test for the Obama administration, API's CEO and president Jack Gerard said this week. If the pipeline is held to be in the national interest by President Obama, or under recent legislation simply left unopposed, it will be a signal to global investors and the American public that energy investment is welcome in the U.S., Gerard said. A decision to turn down the pipeline is a signal that carries "significant political consequences," he said in releasing the group's State of American Energy report this week.

Energy voters are for now still an untested political bloc, an incoherent grouping largely still imagined by strategists and advertising campaigns. Keystone may be the first test of whether this group can emerge as a coherent reality, but with hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, it will not be their last.

This AOL Energy Comment reflects the views of the author alone, in this case, AOL Energy Managing Editor Peter Gardett. Join the AOL Energy discussion by leaving a comment below or joining a conversation on our Discussions page.

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