President Obama has steered clear of taking a firm stance on the Keystone pipeline, but many Democrats running for Senate don’t have the same luxury.
Eight of the 18 non-incumbent Democrats running for Senate surveyed by The Hill either steadfastly support the pipeline or oppose it outright, breaking with Obama’s decision to reserve judgment on the project until federal regulators conduct a full review.
TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL pipeline has ignited a firestorm in Washington.
The president denied a cross-border permit for the pipeline in January, infuriating Republicans and launching a thorny political debate in Congress that has forced vulnerable Senate Democrats to weigh in on the project. But Obama has said his decision to reject the pipeline was based not on its merits, but on a 60-day, GOP-backed deadline included in legislation to extend the payroll tax cut.
As gas prices near a national average of $4 per gallon, the Keystone fight on Capitol Hill has spread to the campaign trail, even in states that are nowhere near the pipeline route.
Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R) has attacked his opponent, Elizabeth Warren (D), for opposing the project.
“Elizabeth Warren is an ‘energy elitist’ who thinks we can power our country on renewable sources alone,” Jim Barnett, Brown’s campaign manager, said in a statement last week.
“Even with Massachusetts motorists shelling out nearly four dollars a gallon at the pump, she opposes key efforts to increase our supply of oil, including construction of the Keystone pipeline, which will not only help bring down gas prices but also create thousands of good construction jobs,” Barnett said.
Warren, whose office confirmed that she opposes the pipeline, hit back at Brown, painting him as a pawn of Big Oil for opposing legislation to repeal $24 billion in tax breaks for the largest oil companies over the next decade.
Warren is one of five non-incumbent Democrats running for Senate who are on the record as opposing the pipeline, according to a review by The Hill.
Three Democratic candidates support the pipeline, including Heidi Heitkamp, who is hoping to replace retiring Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). Heitkamp blasted Obama in January for rejecting the cross-border permit for the pipeline, which would run through North Dakota.
But not all the candidates have staked out a clear position on the pipeline. Six of the candidates, including the Independent Angus King of Maine, stand firmly behind Obama's stance that the project needs a full review before a decision can be made.
One example is former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D), who is hoping to replace retiring Sen. Jim Webb (D).
“Just because Congress forced a rushed decision, however, does not mean the review of this project needs to stop,” Kaine said in a statement after Obama rejected the Keystone permit in January. “I hope that the administration will continue to examine this project and offer its thoughts on how it can be safely accomplished.”
Kaine’s Republican opponent, former Gov. George Allen, has blasted Kaine for supporting Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone permit. But Kaine’s office stresses that he does not oppose the project; he just wants to ensure it is subjected to adequate oversight.
Some Democrats running for Senate have avoided taking a public position on the project altogether, underscoring the political sensitivities surrounding the pipeline.
One of the most notable examples is former Nebraska Gov. Bob Kerrey, who is hoping to take over for retiring Sen. Ben Nelson (D).
"It may be that that genie's out of the bottle already, and if you're down to a choice of summarily shipping it west and having it end up being sent to China or shipping it south and used by the United States, it's probably difficult to oppose it at this point," Kerrey told The Omaha World-Herald last month.
"But I haven't reached an absolute decision on it."
Keystone has become an explosive political issue in Nebraska, amid concerns that the project could pollute an environmentally sensitive region of the state. But project developer TransCanada has vowed to determine a route around the region, easing many Nebraska officials’ concerns.
Three Democratic Senate hopefuls did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Hill.
The Hill reviewed candidates' publicly stated positions on the pipeline. When no position was available, The Hill reached out to candidates’ offices for comment.
Republicans have used Obama’s January Keystone decision to launch broader assaults on Obama’s energy policies, arguing the president isn’t doing enough to ensure the country has enough access to North American oil.
The White House, which did not respond to a request for comment on this story, has worked furiously to undercut the Republican attacks.
Obama touted his “all-of-the-above” energy plan during a four-state tour last month. During a stop in Cushing, Okla., Obama underscored his support for the southern portion of the pipeline project, but stressed that the rest of the project needs further review.
A breakdown of where the 18 non-incumbent Democratic Senate hopefuls stand regarding the Keystone XL pipeline:
Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.)
Shelley Berkley (Nev.) — if oil from the pipeline stays in the United States
Joe Donnelly (Ind.)
Martin Heinrich (N.M.)
Chris Murphy (Conn.)
Elizabeth Warren (Mass.)
Susan Bysiewicz (Conn.)
Pete Ashdown (Utah)
Backs Obama decision to subject pipeline to more review:
Tim Kaine (Va.)
Tammy Baldwin (Wis.)
Ed Case (Hawaii)
Hector Balderas (N.M.)
Angus King (I-Maine)
Mazie Hirono (Hawaii)
Bob Kerrey (Neb.)
Richard Carmona (Ariz.)
William Tong (Conn.)
Paul Sadler (Texas)
—Josh Fatzick contributed to this story.