Pile of money.Photo: doctorwonderWhat do you do if you’ve lost an argument?

Say you really really want to build a big pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta so that you can sell your bitumen to the world.

But 20 of the nation’s top scientists have written to the president to say it’s a terrible idea — and the planet’s leading climatologist says burning the tar sands would be “game over for the climate.” And nine recent winners of the Nobel Peace Prize have condemned the plan. And Robert Redford has just made a video explaining why the plan is an attack on the nation’s heartland.

Then, if you’re a poor forlorn oil industry feeling unloved and under assault, what do you do?

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There’s really only one answer: Flash your wad. 

As we get to the final chapters of the Keystone pipeline saga (the president has said he’ll make his decision by year’s end), money’s the only argument these guys have left.

They managed to buy a favorable environmental review from the U.S. State Department, which helpfully outsourced the job to a company that was a “major client” of TransCanada, the pipeline builder.

And yesterday, they proposed a $100 million “performance bond” to the state of Nebraska, whose Republican governor and senator have come out against the pipeline. The money is apparently designed to pay for damage to the Ogallala Aquifer if the pipeline starts to leak.

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Meanwhile, when 33 Democratic representatives sent a letter to the White House demanding a rejection of the plan, lobbyists for TransCanada rounded up their own list of lawmakers from the president’s party to issue a rejoinder. But they only found 22. And what do you know — they included nine of the top 10 Democratic recipients of oil money in the House. On average the signatories received over 4.25 times more oil money than the average House Democrat in the 112th Congress. That would be 325 percent more. That would be how the game is played.

The other side — that is, scientists, Nobelists, and the kind of average people who went to jail in record numbers this summer to block the plan — doesn’t have that kind of money. We’ve had to figure out other currencies to work in: spirit, passion, creativity. We’ve spent our bodies, putting them on the line. The odds are still against us, but the odds are changing; we’re on a roll as we head toward Nov. 6, when we’ll ring the White House with people, exactly one year before the election. (You can sign up here.)

But every once in a while we get to play the money game too! While TransCanada was out there setting the $100 million price on the Ogallala Aquifer, this news story rolled across my screen. It described a big Democratic giver, Barbarina Heyerdahl. She gave 120 grand to Obama and the Democratic National Committee over the last three years, not to mention knocking on doors for the 2008 campaign. But she said Keystone is a bridge too far, that “she won’t be writing any more checks to Obama if he approves the carbon conduit that’s become the focus of the climate-change movement. ‘It’s a baseline issue,’ she says.”

I have no doubt that, even with Heyerdahl and other donors accounted for, the oil industry has all the money they need to win this fight. The Koch brothers are the third and fourth richest men in America, and they filed papers in Canada declaring their “direct and substantial” interest in the project. If money’s the only thing that matters, they’ll carry the day.

But if money’s the only thing that matters, we’re done for anyway. So we’ll keep using science and art and courage. And we’ll hope that Barack Obama hasn’t sold his soul. We’re going to find out in the next few weeks.