By Laura Barron-Lopez - 04/07/14 06:00 AM EDT
Like a blockbuster movie that never quite arrives, President Obama’s decision on the Keystone XL oil pipeline has been “coming soon” for years.
After a February White House meeting between Obama and a number of governors, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) told reporters that Obama had said he expected to make a call “in a couple of months.”
But the White House has not even acknowledged that such a suggestion was made, let alone whether its implicit commitment would be kept.
White House press secretary Jay Carney declined at the time to comment on the specifics of the conversation.
If Obama gives construction of the oil-sands pipeline a green light this spring or summer, he could frame it as an example of his support for North American energy production, a boost for the economy, and a helpful concession to vulnerable Senate Democrats who support the $5.4 billion project.
But he could go the other way. A flat-out rejection of the pipeline might enthuse the Democratic base for the midterm elections in November, which will hinge on turnout.
The third option: Punt a decision again. A delay until after the midterms might be safest for the president because it would excite only mild criticism compared to the storm of opprobrium that would follow a firm decision either way.
Delay could also make Keystone a bargaining chip for the president in either the lame-duck session of Congress or next year, when he could face a Republican House and Senate.
It’s a vexed question, with which Obama’s canniest strategists are still wrestling. Which is perhaps why the White House evinces little enthusiasm in talking about the subject.
In a statement to The Hill, White House Assistant Press Secretary Matt Lehrich said:
“As Secretary [of State John] Kerry and others across the administration have made clear, a decision on whether the project is in the national interest will be made only after careful consideration of the environmental impact statement and other pertinent information, comments from the public, and views of other agency heads.”
Lehrich added that the project will only be in the national interest if it does not significantly contribute to carbon pollution.
Afforded anonymity, senior administration officials say the issue is particularly tricky because it has taken on a life of its own; its symbolic significance and the light Obama’s decision will cast on his administration has grown far beyond a simple cost-benefit analysis of the pipeline’s economic and environmental impact.
They add resignedly that a final decision will inevitably stoke angry rhetoric. “There’s no question that there’s politics around it,” one senior administration official said. “It’s complicated and polarizing.
“All the more reason why, when a decision [is] made, it be extra clear that the decision itself was made on the merits.”
Severing policy from politics may be impossible. Businesses and unions would cheer approval of Keystone, which would be taken as a sign of presidential focus on jobs.
“From my perspective, there is no downside to approving the Keystone pipeline,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), an electorally vulnerable Democrat whose defeat could put the Senate in Republican hands.
“I’ve been urging [Obama] to do so for literally two years,” she told The Hill. “It’s symbolic of the energy infrastructure that needs to be built up. So from my perspective, there’s only an upside, which is good for the country and good for Louisiana.”
But allowing Keystone to be built would enrage environmental pressure groups, which are a powerful part of Obama’s base. Green activists vow to punish the president if he decides against them on their most important issue.
Keystone’s opponents say green-lighting the project won’t save Landrieu or any other vulnerable Democrat. In addition to enervating the base, they argue, it would anger big Democratic donors such as Tom Steyer, a billionaire hedge-fund investor who has threatened to buy advertisements against anyone who backs the pipeline.
“Turning out the base is the key to winning midterm elections and the Democratic base opposes Keystone XL,” said Jamie Henn, spokesman for 350 Action, an environmental group. “There are a lot of young people who would like to go help elect climate champions, but there is no way they will rally behind [Obama] until he says no to the pipeline.”
Environmental groups do not want Obama to delay a decision, either, Henn said. They want it rejected now, arguing that it would electrify liberal activists without hurting vulnerable Senate Democrats such as Landrieu, Mark Begich (Alaska), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Kay Hagan (N.C.). “He needs to say ‘no’ this spring,” Henn said.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a vociferous critic of Keystone, said, “I think that a lot of people, particularly younger people who are very actively concerned about climate issues and what carbon pollution is doing to our atmosphere and oceans, would be disheartened by a decision that went the wrong way.”
Landrieu thinks she can survive whichever way Obama decides. “This election is not going to be won by what the White House does or doesn’t do,” she said last week. “It will be won by what I do, what the people of Louisiana decide about the kind of leadership they want in the Senate.”
The left agrees. “There is a way for moderate Democrats to create enough distance for themselves,” said Henn, adding that Landrieu, Begich and others have made their support for Keystone clear to voters.
Obama delayed making a final decision before his reelection run in 2012 and can continue to kick the can if he chooses. But GOP pressure for a decision will intensify this summer.
“This argument that the administration has made about going through the process — that’s the process, that’s it, there is no more process,” said Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who thinks Obama has run out of excuses for not deciding.
The administration has spent six years conducting five studies on the pipeline, which would carry crude oil from Alberta sands to Gulf refineries. The State Department has already determined that the project would not significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions, and is nearing the end of a review to determine if building the pipeline is in the national interest.
The review is expected to wrap up in early May, which would allow Kerry to make a recommendation to Obama.
Whitehouse said the timing of a decision is not “all that significant from an elections point of view” but he nevertheless urges Kerry to take his time and not be rushed by partisans on either side.
Begich said a decision on Keystone would have no effect on his reelection bid in Alaska, but criticized Obama for the delay. “The president has been absolutely wrong on this,” he told The Hill, and predicted that supporters would push for action on the Senate floor if Obama puts off a verdict beyond May.
“Keystone XL is not a pivotal issue for me in Alaska, but it’s an important issue for this country to get this moving forward,” he said. “In Alaska they know I’m supportive of oil and gas.”
Amie Parnes and Alexander Bolton contributed.