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Keystone supporters, please do a rain dance

How drought is tied to Keystone.

It’s been a very dry winter south of the border. As much as 56% of the country was experiencing drought conditions as of mid-February, especially in the so-called Corn Belt area, a vast region that includes Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, eastern Nebraska, and eastern Kansas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Although a lack of rain in the cold season doesn’t necessarily spell doom for most crops, the lack of precipitation has already dried up 50 per cent of the hard-red winter wheat growing in Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. If the spring and summer don’t bring some wet relief, the U.S. might well face another year of very low yields after last year’s summer drought — with the difference that global wheat, corn and soybean stocks this time around would already be depleted.

What does this have to do with the Keystone XL? Well, extreme weather events are known to move climate change up Americans’ priority list. After Superstorm Sandy ravaged New York City and much of North East last November, half of Republican voters and 73% of independents said they were worried about weather disasters fueled by global warming, according to a survey by Zogby Aanalystics. That compares to 75% of Republicans and nearly half of independents telling pollsters climate change wasn’t a source of concern in 2009.

The hurricane might have helped put climate change back on the White House agenda, and once the Keystone debate resumed earlier this year it didn’t take long for environmentalist groups to link Canada’s planned pipeline to the devastating storm.

(And let me add here that one doesn’t need to be a climate change denier to argue that the link doesn’t exist: the pipeline would have no significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Department of State. Besides, as some savvy environmentalists are arguing, trying to reduce GHG emissions by chocking fossil fuel supplies—rather than reducing demand for them—is tilting at windmills.)

It’s easy to see how another imaginary link could be drawn between the pipeline and the drought. Some, in fact, are already at it. Here’s the National Wildlife Federation, a leading restoration group, in a March 1 critique of the latest State Department’s environmental assessment of the Keystone:

President Obama visited Iowa last August during the region-wide drought that decimated crops and cost U.S. taxpayers around $20 billion. Climate change, driven by use of fossil fuels like tar sands, is causing extreme weather events around the globe.

If the current dry spell extends into the Spring, expect more.

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Erica Alini is a California-based reporter and a regular contributor to, where she covers the U.S. economy. Follow her on Twitter: @ealini.