Obama's Keystone Pipeline Decision Just Got Tougher

Thanks to Senate victories, Republicans can now force the president's hand on the contentious pipeline issue.

Keystone XL protest in Washington on April 26, 2013

Pete Marovich

For six years a coalition of Democrats, environmentalists, and farmers have battled the Keystone XL pipeline, a 1,179-mile conduit proposed by energy company TransCanada that would link U.S. oil refineries with Canada tar sands.

Halting the pipeline has become an article of faith in liberal Democratic circles. Donors stop Obama at fundraisers and badger him not to approve the project. Thousands of protestors, including Native Americans and Nebraska ranchers on horseback, swarmed Washington last April in opposition to Keystone. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to hold any votes on the issue.

The midterm elections, however, left Republicans with a filibuster proof majority in the Senate on Keystone. Before the midterms, Republicans could count on 57 votes for Keystone and they picked four new supporters this week—Representative Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Representative Cory Gardner of Colorado, Senator Joni Ernst in Iowa, and Senator Mike Rounds in South Dakota—bringing their total to 61. A little legislative wheeling and dealing—like adding some sweeteners to the bill—could get them to 67 yes votes, a veto-proof majority.

Republicans list Keystone as one of their first pieces of legislation, once they take over the Senate next year. “The energy boom that’s going on in America is real and I think it provides us with a very big opportunity,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters on Wednesday. 

Because the project crosses an international border, Obama has the final say on its approval. The administration has delayed moving on the project for years, pushing off a final review by the State Department and saying they wanted to wait for a decision on a related court case pending before the Nebraska Supreme Court.

But the shifting landscape of the Senate puts new pressure on the president to make a final decision on the project. Should he go along with Republicans, he risks outraging his environment base, which has turned Keystone into the signature issue determining his environmental legacy. Speaking at the White House today, spokesman Josh Earnest left open the possibility that Obama would not veto a Republican Keystone bill.

"We'll consider any sort of proposals that are passed by Congress," Earnest said. "That, you're right, does seem to pretty directly contradict the position that's been adopted by this administration."

Obama's personal views on the project have remained a mystery.  Environmentalists and energy lobbyists working on the issue spend much of their time trying to read the White House tea leaves, causing them to vacillatesometimes weekly—on whether the administration agrees with their positions.

 White House aides have been careful not to give any indication about whether the president wants to approve the project. Last year, Obama said he would approve the project only if it "does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." But there have also been indications that he resents the pressure environmentalists have placed on him to reject the pipeline. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, he called Keystone "one small aspect" of the country's energy mix. In private conversations, however, he's told supporters that he's far more concerned about climate change than the pipeline. And aides are quick to defend his environmental record, saying Environmental Protection Agency rules Obama has imposed on power plants to cut their greenhouse gases will do more good in the long-run than Keystone would do environmental harm.

That does little to convince some environmentalists, however. “President Obama can’t approve the most massive oil infrastructure project in modern history, while claiming to be a climate champion,” said May Boeve, executive director of the green group 350.org, in a statement. “We know the Republicans are going to make Keystone a priority, but this isn’t their call.”  

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