Wendy Abrams’ opportunity came in the photo line. As she stepped up to take her picture with President Barack Obama during a fundraiser last month in Chicago, she made her pitch: How could a president who vowed to tackle climate change possibly approve the Keystone XL pipeline?
Obama, she recalled, told her that environmental activists are too focused on the $5.3 billion Keystone project and promised she’d be pleased with his proposals on climate change later this summer.
“I was really depressed,” Abrams, who has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Obama and the Democrats, said in a telephone interview. “People who had hoped he would do really great things walk away feeling that he’s not standing up against the fossil fuel industry.”
Abrams is one of many Obama supporters troubled by his silence on TransCanada Corp. (TRP)’s proposed pipeline, which would carry oil sands from Canada to U.S. refineries. The issue has overshadowed almost any other on his second-term agenda for many top donors, environmental allies and young supporters. Traditionally strong Democratic allies, environmentalists were upset by the failure of climate change legislation to advance in Obama’s first term and are concerned their issues are taking a back seat to other party priorities in his second.
The internal divisions among Obama supporters driven by Keystone threaten to sap dollars and volunteer enthusiasm from Organizing for Action, the policy group born out of Obama’s re-election campaign that raised $4.9 million in the first three months of this year. The split may hurt OFA’s ability to build support for the president’s other initiatives, such as immigration and revising the tax code.
“The people who knocked on doors, donated to his campaign and helped put him in the White House are watching to see if President Obama will side with a foreign oil company or keep his promise and take real action to fight climate change, starting with rejecting Keystone XL,” Becky Bond, political director of CREDO, a super-political action committee started by a mobile phone company based in San Francisco, said in a conference call last week with reporters.
OFA, like Obama, has avoided the issue that environmentalists say is the president’s best opportunity to take a stand on climate change. An OFA fact sheet instructs its activists to stay out of the Keystone fight as the president weighs the environmental impact against the potential jobs to be gained and the energy advantages.
“If people believe that Keystone XL is the primary fight to be engaged in, there are many groups who have taken a position, and we are happy to make suggestions about who volunteers might work with on that or other issues,” the memo says.
OFA has access to 20 million e-mail addresses of Obama supporters and the social-media empire left over from Obama’s campaigns. Its mission is to advance the president’s agenda -- not change his mind, said Ivan Frishberg, director of OFA’s climate change campaign.
“Keystone is one decision, and it’s a big one. But it’s not the only one,” Frishberg said in a phone interview.
To assuage the Keystone-opposing donors who have been confronting him at fundraisers this year, Obama has said he plans to unveil a package of separate actions in July focused on curbing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Keystone’s fate currently rests with the State Department, which is working on a final environmental assessment of the project. The draft environmental impact statement issued by the department in March concluded that the Alberta oil would find its way to customers with or without Keystone. The Environmental Protection Agency said the department’s review wasn’t thorough enough.
A final decision on the project, which will come after White House review, is expected no earlier than September. The delay, and Obama’s decision not to quickly reject the proposal, is frustrating his green-minded allies.
Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said he worked closely with OFA executive director Jon Carson, whom he considers a friend, when Carson was director of public engagement at the White House.
Brune said he has repeatedly asked Carson to use OFA’s muscle to stop the pipeline, making the request in person, over the phone, in text messages and through e-mail.
“I’m having a contest with myself to see how many ways I can ask the same question,” Brune said in a phone interview. “He says OFA is supporting the president’s agenda, and the president hasn’t come out against this, so it’s not part of the agenda. The answer is always the same. They have great message discipline.”
The Obama world’s split on Keystone is so deep that it even divides White House aides who’ve left the administration.
Formers deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton, deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, White House special assistant Jim Papa, and Obama fundraiser Paul Tewes are all working as consultants for opponents of the project, including the League of Conservation Voters.
Meanwhile, TransCanada is a client at the firm of one-time White House communications director Anita Dunn.
Others close to the president, including longtime Democratic Party donors, have organized a campaign to fight the pipeline. In recent weeks, they’ve begun confronting Obama at every fundraiser he’s attended across the country.
Last month, they wrote him a letter, saying his decision on Keystone “holds a comparable urgency and importance” to President Abraham Lincoln’s move to end slavery.
It was signed by 150 donors, including Esprit de Corp co-founder Susie Tompkins Buell, actress Blythe Danner, Sun MicroSystems co-founder Vinod Khosla and Robert Kennedy Jr.
Tom Steyer, a San Francisco-based donor to Obama and other Democrats, formed a super-political action committee, NextGen, to fight the pipeline. He wrote an open letter to Obama June 3 warning that he would be engaging the president’s own supporters to lobby him on Keystone.
The intra-party awkwardness surfaces on OFA’s Web pages and social-media sites. On Facebook, Keystone opponents engage in battles whenever the group posts anything about the climate. Last week, OFA publicized a Google Inc. video chat with former Vice President Al Gore. The climate champion seized the platform to assail Obama’s position on Keystone, which he said would carry “the dirtiest form of fuel on the planet.”
“He ought to veto that, and I hope that he will,” Gore continued. “And then I hope he’ll get moving to follow up on the wonderful pledges he made.”
Having taken itself out of the Keystone debate, OFA has sought to keep the loyalty of climate-focused activists by targeting Republican lawmakers who question the science behind climate change.
“Unicorns exist,” was the subject line of a May 7 e-mail from Frishberg to OFA supporters. The group announced it would devote its resources to “calling out” climate deniers. It unveiled a Web page, complete with an interactive map of U.S. representatives, that chronicles statements lawmakers have made questioning whether climate change is real.
Ken Denson, an OFA volunteer in the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield, Missouri, said he and two dozen others protested May 29 outside the district office of Republican Representative Ann Wagner, who has said the science on climate change is “unsettled.” He said the value of OFA’s deniers campaign is that “it forces the issue and gets publicity.”
Denson, a longtime environmental activist, said he is following OFA’s “party line” of not discussing Keystone even though he is “extremely opposed” to the pipeline. “I’m just going to wait and see what happens,” he said.
Yet some Obama supporters are puzzled by OFA’s approach.
“It’s stupid to be a climate denier. It’s even more stupid to spend your time calling out stupid people,” said Robert Robinson, who has attended two OFA planning sessions and is a former political organizer.
Robinson and his wife, Sherrill Berger, have hosted two local OFA meetings focused on climate change issues at their solar-panel-powered rowhouse in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington. Both were publicized in the events section of the OFA website. Frishberg said OFA will use its extensive e-mail list to promote official climate action planning sessions across the country scheduled for June 19.
One Wednesday evening this month, Robinson and Berger set up chairs in a semi-circle, laid out plates of cookies and other nibbles and waited. No one came. When a reporter knocked on their door an hour after the meeting was to start, they shared their frustrations about OFA.
“As they were setting up OFA in January, they told us, ’It’ll be whatever you think is important,’” Berger said. “But they just want us to be soldiers.”