Greens say President Obama has no choice but to kill Keystone XL pipeline

Republicans who lobbied aggressively for a measure to force President Obama to make a speedy decision on the Keystone XL pipeline have ensured the project’s demise, environmental groups say.

The activists said Obama will be forced to reject the pipeline — which would carry oil sands crude from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Gulf Coast — under a measure in the two-month payroll tax cut extension that requires the administration to make a decision on the project within 60 days.

“The president is going to have no choice but to reject the pipeline,” said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of international programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “I don’t see any wiggle room.”

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The GOP-backed provision forces Obama to weigh in on the pipeline well before the 2012 election, a scenario the president sought to avoid. The pipeline is a thorny political issue for the White House, as its splits parts of Obama’s base. Environmental groups vehemently oppose the project, while some major labor unions support it.

Environmental groups said they are working to assure Obama that rejecting the pipeline will not hurt him politically.

“We expect the president to do the right thing and to stand up to big oil and the political games being played by congressional Republicans,” said Jeremy Symons, senior vice president for conservation and education at the National Wildlife Federation. “We’re confident that the American public will support the administration denying this dangerous pipeline.”

But proponents of the project are putting pressure on Obama to approve the pipeline and said there will be dire political consequences if the project is scrapped.

“If the president is serious about job creation and energy security, now is the time to act on the Keystone XL pipeline,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue said in a statement. “This is the perfect example of a shovel-ready project that makes sense for our economy.”

Obama last month sought to delay a final verdict on the pipeline by calling for review of alternative routes around the environmentally sensitive Sand Hills region of Nebraska. The move delayed a decision on the project until 2013.

Casey-Lefkowitz said approval of the pipeline in the next 60 days would violate the law, which requires additional environmental review of the alternative routes Obama has called for.

“I don’t think they legally can say it’s approved, because what approval would indicate is that they have finished this review process, which they haven’t,” Casey-Lefkowitz said. “Republicans overreached this time in trying to pressure the president to do something when he’s already decided that additional review is needed.”

The Keystone measure from the GOP is written in a way that forces Obama’s hand, Sierra Club spokesman Eddie Scher said.

“It seems like [Republicans] wrote themselves into a corner,” he said.

Bill McKibben, a vocal opponent of the pipeline and founder of 350.org, agreed.

“[The administration] said it was going to take a year — it shouldn’t come as a big surprise to anyone that they can’t do it in 60 days,” McKibben said. “One assumes that they’re good for their word.”

Obama administration officials have made similar comments in recent weeks. The State Department, which is leading a multi-agency review of the proposed pipeline, has said the administration will have little choice but to reject the project because the expedited timeline will not leave enough time to conduct the necessary review.

Other administration and White House officials have made similar comments. White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said earlier this month on Twitter that the GOP-backed Keystone provision “simply shortens the review process in a way that virtually guarantees that the pipeline will NOT be approved.”

McKibben said opponents of the Keystone pipeline plan to hit back in the coming months at Republicans who pushed for the Keystone measure, by painting them as pawns of the oil industry.

“It became clearly a function of the fossil fuel lobby doing its thing,” McKibben said. “In any other realm of our life, that would be regarded as incredibly unfair.”

Though they believe the Keystone measure will force Obama to reject the pipeline, environmental groups said they are prepared for continued efforts by Republicans and some centrist Democrats to ensure that the pipeline project moves forward.

“Other things could happen, but not under this bill,” Casey-Lefkowitz said.