President Obama told House Republicans that a decision on the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline will arrive soon, but lawmakers emerged from their meeting with Obama split over whether or not he suggested that he’s leaning toward approval.
“[He] said that there was going to be a decision made soon, I think he said a couple of weeks,” said Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) after the House GOP conference had a wide-ranging meeting with Obama in the Capitol on Wednesday.
Several members told The Hill that Obama made comments that indicated that he was likely to approve the controversial pipeline that would bring Canadian oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries.
“My guess is that he will approve it, at least to some extent,” said Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.). “That is the impression that I got, but he did not say one way or the other specifically.”
Asked if Obama indicated whether Keystone is likely to be approved, Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said, “It kind of felt that way. He didn’t announce it.”
“He did not answer it definitively one way or the other,” Lankford said, but added, “It sounded more positive.”
Rep. Harris similarly said, “It sounded positive,” while Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) said after the meeting that Obama’s comments left him thinking it would be approved.
“I felt more positive about it than negative. I wouldn't say he implied it. But I do think that by the way he said that there would be news on that in the next couple of weeks, it was more positive than negative,” said Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.).
Despite some lawmakers' bullish take on the meeting, it would have been politically and legally surprising for Obama to tip his hand while the pipeline is under formal federal review under the National Environmental Policy Act.
And several other members said after the meeting that Obama gave no indication of which direction he is leaning.
“He talked out of both sides of his mouth and gave us no indication of anything,” said Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), who is among the most vocal advocates of the project on Capitol Hill.
“His answer was kind of truncated. I couldn't discern a positive or negative in that,” said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), while Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) said Obama “talked in circles.”
A White House official said Obama “did not indicate either way.” The official noted that the proposed pipeline remains under review at the State Department, which recently released a draft environmental analysis and will take comment for 45 days.
“As you know the assessment is ongoing, and the State Department recently began the public comment period following the release of their Draft [Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement],” the White House official said.
Several members said that Obama told the GOP conference the project would not create as many jobs as advocates have argued, but would not be as harmful as green groups have alleged.
“He said it was not going to create as many jobs as some people have claimed but it also wasn’t going to do as much environmental harm as some of the environmentalists claim,” Duncan said.
Republicans — joined by business groups, some Democrats and a number of unions — are strongly pressing for a federal cross-border permit for TransCanada Corp.’s pipeline.
But environmental groups and some liberal Democrats strongly oppose the project.
“He implied that there might be a resolution in the coming weeks and that we would not be entirely satisfied with the resolution, but it didn’t sound either like the environmentalists' interests would be completely satisfied either,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said.
King said he’s not sure what that outcome could mean.
“To me, it is either build it or not,” he said.
— Zack Colman contributed
This post was updated at 4:55 p.m. and 5:31 p.m. on March 13, and at 10:02 a.m. on March 14