Obama’s Keystone shift

Obama’s Keystone shift
© Getty Images

As the new GOP Congress scrambles to pass legislation approving the Keystone XL pipeline, President Obama has increasingly signaled a negative view of the controversial project. 

Recent weeks have seen some of the most negative comments from Obama on Keystone — not just about supporters’ attempts to bypass him, but on the merits of pipeline itself.

It’s a shift for Obama, away from more neutral previous statements that have for years left his leanings unknown. And it’s giving environmentalists more hope than ever that Obama will reject the pipeline.

One of the president’s most forceful statements about the pipeline came the week before Christmas, when he declared that Keystone would provide little, if any, benefit to the United States.

“It’s very good for Canadian oil companies, and it’s good for the Canadian oil industry but it’s not going to be a huge benefit to U.S. consumers, it’s not even going to be a nominal benefit to U.S. consumers,” he told reporters.

About a month earlier, Obama said during a trip to Asia that Keystone “is providing the ability of Canada to pump their oil, send it through our land down to the gulf, where it will be sold to everyone else. It doesn’t have an impact on U.S. gas prices.”

The president has only reached this opinion about the Canada-to-Texas pipeline after a years-long roller coast of statements and indications from him and his administration.

Since the pipeline, proposed by TransCanada Corp., would cross the Canadian border, Obama must sign off on it. Congress is trying to approve the project itself, and the Senate is planning to vote soon on a bill the House passed Friday to do so.

The State Department is still studying whether to recommend that Obama approve the application, more than six years after it was filed.

State had paused its consideration last year while the Nebraska Supreme Court decided whether the law setting Keystone’s route through the state was constitutional.

That court ruled in the pipeline’s favor Friday.  But the State Department and the White House said the ruling had no affect the Obama administration’s timeline for a decision, or its position that congress is acting outside of its jurisdiction in its bid to approve the pipeline.

State spokeswoman Jen Psaki repeatedly refused Friday to give reporters a timeline for the review, saying only “I don't anticipate” that it would happen after the 2016 election.

The earliest indication the Obama administration gave on Keystone was from then Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House would like to see Biden ‘in the boxing ring’ in 2020 House Judiciary chair subpoenas DOJ for FBI documents The suit to make Electoral College more ‘fair’ could make it worse MORE, who said in 2010 that “we are inclined to” approve the pipeline, a stark contrast from more recent comments from the president.

That came months after a draft environmental review from State that proposed concluding that Keystone would have “limited adverse environmental impacts,” despite environmentalists’ views that the oil sands it would transport from Alberta would cause a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Obama then lauded the 2012 completion of the southern portion of the pipeline, saying, “I don’t want the energy jobs of tomorrow going to other countries. I want them here in the United States of America.”

But as lawmakers became impatient with years of delay from Obama, they started trying to take control of the process. The House voted again and again to approve the pipeline, angering Obama.

The president has recently taken a new tone, and has begun directly questioning the pipeline’s benefits.

“It could create a couple of thousand potential jobs in the initial construction of the pipeline, but we’ve got to measure that against whether or not it is going to contribute to an overall warming of the planet that could be disastrous,” he said in December on “The Colbert Report.”

He’s also kept up his criticism of the bills to approve the project and is now threatening to veto the legislation lawmakers are working to pass.

Obama’s recent speeches have added to environmentalists’ optimism that he will reject the application.

“The president’s clearly become more expansive in his statements about Keystone over time,” said David Goldston, the top lobbyist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “His comments, especially with the lame duck vote in November, have more explicitly laid down the arguments for rejecting Keystone.”

Goldston said Obama has shifted from merely criticizing the process lawmakers want to use to more openly criticizing the proposed pipeline.

“That’s definitely the evolution in terms of public statements, more comprehensive and more negative over time,” he said.

“We’re feeling pretty good about where we are,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesman for 350.org. “And I think that’s because the president’s language has been some of the strongest that he’s ever given on Keystone.”

Ganapathy said Obama’s being less cautious because it is becoming more apparent that opposing Keystone does not mean that he opposes economic growth or jobs.

“It’s very easy to frame the debate as where you’re either for trees or for jobs,” he said. “Now, the president’s starting to articulate more forcefully that that’s a false dichotomy, that Keystone doesn’t get us anything in terms of economic growth, but it also comes at an enormous cost to our environment.”

But while Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) welcomes the new anger from Obama, he isn’t sure that it means the president will reject Keystone.

“The change where he said he would veto it, that was very important,” he said. “It doesn’t mean he’s not going to approve it, I wouldn’t jump to that.”

Robert Stavins, an environmental economics professor at Harvard University, said Obama’s anger seems more directed at Congress’ attempts to go around him than at the project itself.

“It may be that the president has been reacting to the Congress trying to take control through legislation of what is legally an administration prerogative, namely to approve or not the pipeline,” Stavins said.

“Therefore, it is possible that, although the president has indicated that he will veto the Congressional attempt to approve the pipeline, the president will eventually ... approve the pipeline.”

That might be the most politically shrewd route for Obama, because he can stand up to Congress while still currying favor with moderate voters who support Keystone.