Environmental activists reeling as Keystone pipeline gains momentum

Green groups are reeling after the release of a draft State Department report that seemed to put the Keystone XL oil pipeline on track for approval.

Opponents of Keystone are furious at State’s environmental assessment of the project, which brushed aside of one of their central arguments against it: namely, that it would exacerbate clime change by expanding the use of oil sands. 

ADVERTISEMENT
“The State Department’s conclusions are so off-base that they’re borderline absurd,” Daniel Kessler, a spokesman with climate group 350.org, told The Hill.
Environmental groups vowed they would continue to pressure President Obama to kill the pipeline, but acknowledged the blow that Friday’s report delivered to their cause.

“In terms of the politics, it’s just astounding that this report comes out and you get glowing statements from the American Petroleum Institute, [Speaker] John BoehnerJohn BoehnerRyan reminds lawmakers to be on time for votes Juan Williams: GOP fumbles on healthcare The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE [(R-Ohio)] and the politicians who get the most money from Big Oil,” said Lena Moffitt, a Washington representative with the Sierra Club.

The State Department’s report found that the Canada-to-Texas pipeline would have little effect on accelerating oil sands production and climate change.

“Approval or denial of the proposed project is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude oil refined in the Gulf Coast area,” the report said.

The assessment is not final, but could indicate the arguments in favor of the pipeline are winning the day within the administration.

That’s an alarming prospect for green activists, who argue that approval of the project would be a betrayal of Obama’s second-term promise to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.

“I think he already has laid out the decision he has to make on Keystone,” Moffitt said, regarding the president's commitments on climate.

Fearing defeat, some in the environmental movement are beginning to warn that Obama’s goal of winning back the House for Democrats in 2014 could be at risk if he were to give the go-ahead to the pipeline.

“We’re building a movement. But if he says yes to the pipeline, he’s going to be telling that movement he doesn’t need them,” said Kessler, of 350.org.

Green groups saw many of their favored House and Senate candidates triumph in the 2012 elections. They say the grassroots excitement that drove those victories will evaporate in 2014 if Obama comes down on the side of the oil-and-gas industry in the pipeline battle.

“I think if he says yes to Keystone that does turn a lot of folks off. We’ve poured so much energy, so much enthusiasm in this fight,” Peter LaFontaine, an energy policy advocate with the National Wildlife Federation, told The Hill. “I think, being perfectly frank, they lose a pretty big chunk of the electorate that’s stood with them in tough times.”

Not all green groups were ready to predict what the Keystone decision might mean for the 2014 elections. The League of Conservation Voters and Natural Resources Defense Council said they would focus their efforts on convincing Obama he could solidify a “legacy” on climate by rejecting the pipeline.

Keystone has support from lawmakers in both parties and strong backing from business groups. In a political twist, some of Obama’s union allies are quietly urging approval of the project as well, because it would likely create jobs for tradesmen.

GOP backers of Keystone have seized on the job-creating potential of Keystone in a vocal pressure campaign on the White House. Only the president’s signature, they argue, stands in the way of an economic jolt for the country.

“Today’s report again makes clear there is no reason for this critical pipeline to be blocked one more day. After four years of needless delays, it is time for President Obama to stand up for middle-class jobs and energy security and approve the Keystone pipeline,” BoehnerJohn BoehnerRyan reminds lawmakers to be on time for votes Juan Williams: GOP fumbles on healthcare The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE said in a Friday statement.

The State Department is conducting the review of the Keystone pipeline because it would cross over the border from Canada. The president has made clear, however, that the buck stops with him when it comes to the final decision on the project’s future.

Green groups say Keystone would create few jobs, and are holding out hope that recently confirmed Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryFrustrated Dems say Obama botched Russia response Budowsky: Dems madder than hell Tillerson: 'My view didn’t change' on Paris climate agreement MORE will change the course of the pipeline review. They note the draft of the assessment was well under way by the time Kerry, a climate change advocate, moved to Foggy Bottom.

“There will be ample opportunities for Secretary Kerry to really ensure there’s a robust analysis of the climate impacts,” Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs with the LCV, told The Hill.

The groups are now focusing on the draft review’s 45-day public comment period, which they will use to press the case that Keystone would be a driving force behind increased oil sands development.

They plan to call upon scientists, senators and other interested parties to write to Obama and Kerry on Keystone while holding another round of public rallies and events across the country.

“The way that he framed up climate, especially in his inaugural address, really didn’t give him a lot of wiggle room,” LaFontaine said.

Messaging efforts for and against Keystone are likely to reach a fever pitch now that the long-delayed project is nearing the moment of truth. A final decision from the State Department could come sometime this summer.

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the NRDC’s international program, said Obama could send a powerful message by scrapping the project.

“If Keystone is rejected, then that is a very important step in fighting climate change. What it will show is that we’re entering a new age,” she said.

— This story was updated at 10:33 a.m.