Vulnerable Senate Democrats Urge Keystone XL Approval

Four politically vulnerable Senate Democrats are urging U.S. President Barack Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, spotlighting the implications of an election-year decision that may influence which party controls the chamber.

At a rally yesterday in Washington, Senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas joined Republicans, the Canadian ambassador to the U.S., oil-industry lobbyists and labor leaders to call on the administration to authorize the $5.4 billion Canada-U.S. oil pipeline. Two other Senate Democrats who face tough November re-elections -- Mark Begich of Alaska and Kay Hagan of North Carolina -- weren’t at the rally but also have voiced strong support for the project.

“The president is in a bit of a squeeze on this,” said Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. Rejecting Keystone will give Republicans running against the four Democrats a “green light” to attack over a project that’s popular with voters and industries back home, he said.

TransCanada Corp. of Calgary wants to build the pipeline to carry oil-sands crude from Alberta to refineries in Texas and Louisiana. The U.S. State Department last week released an environmental assessment that said Keystone isn’t as significant a threat to climate change as its opponents contend.

Landrieu and Pryor touted their leadership in pressing for the pipeline’s approval yesterday before television cameras that could beam their words back home to Republican-leaning states where Keystone is popular.

Pipeline ‘Essential’

“This pipeline is essential, the time to study is over, the time for action is now,” Landrieu said.

The State Department report released Jan. 31 boosts the possibility that Keystone wins U.S. approval, perhaps as soon as July, according to analysts including Kevin Book, managing director at ClearView Energy Partners LLC. The study’s chief conclusion: That Alberta’s oil sands will be mined and refined regardless of the project, contrary to opponents’ claims that blocking it would keep the carbon-heavy crude in the ground.

TransCanada applied more than five years ago for a permit to build the pipeline across six U.S. states in the heartland. The 875-mile segment reviewed by the State Department would run from the U.S.-Canada border to Steele City, Nebraska, before connecting to an existing pipeline network.

Senate Control

Obama faces several political challenges in his decision. It forces him to choose between union supporters who back the project and environmentalists who oppose it, groups that may be key for Democrats in the November elections. Republicans need to pick up six seats to wrest control of the Senate.

The four Democratic pipeline supporters hold positions at odds with most other senators in their party. They’re key to helping Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s strategy of keeping control of the Senate, said Rothenberg. He says Pryor’s seat is tilting toward his Republican opponent, while Landrieu, Hagan and Begich are in races considered “toss-ups.”

“They are the ground zero in the fight for control of the U.S. Senate,” he said.

What’s more, he said, a rejection of the pipeline could be used against Democratic contenders in states with open Senate seats -- Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia.

Three of the four incumbents count on the oil and gas industry as a top source of campaign donations.

Legislation Considered

Landrieu, whose state is home to refineries that want to process the Canadian crude, got the most with $456,300 in donations by mid-December from industry political action committees and individual donors tied to oil and gas companies. Begich raised $279,700 from the industry, while Pryor raised $166,700.

Landrieu and Republican Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota said yesterday that they are weighing legislation that would set a timeline for the president to make his decision.

She told reporters she has been speaking to Obama about the project for months.

“I’ve explained it to the president before, and I’ll explain it again,” she said.

Pryor said his support and that of other Democrats should weigh on the president as he considers the project.

“There’s a pretty decent number of Democrats in the Senate who are for this and want to see this get resolved,” he said.

Obama Push

Their efforts matched the calls of Republican leaders in both chambers, who yesterday renewed their push for Obama to back the project.

“The State Department once again confirmed that there is no reason, scientific or otherwise, for delaying the Keystone pipeline one more day,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters. “Mr. President, it’s time to act.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said pipeline approval is one of the best job-creating moves Obama can make this year.

“I don’t know how many other studies we can possibly have, all of them coming back indicating negligible impact on the environment -- shovel-ready project, private-sector project, ready to go,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters.

The State Department’s review estimated the project would directly create about 3,900 construction jobs for two years. Once in operation, the pipeline would need about 50 people in the U.S., including 35 permanent employees, according to the report.

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