GOP senators: Obama vague on Keystone timeline at meeting

President Obama told GOP senators in a meeting Thursday that a federal decision on the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline will be made within months, but did not indicate what direction he might be leaning.

“He said it would be a matter of months, not years,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), an advocate for the project.

Obama’s time frame will do nothing to quell lawmakers’ criticism of the White House lack of approval thus far, or efforts to push legislation to greenlight the project.

“He said some time this year, and he also said months, he gave both those answers,” said Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), a vocal advocate of the pipeline that would bring Canadian oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries.

“I said it has been five years, and I told him about the legislation that we are going to continue to press forward on,” Hoeven told reporters after Obama had lunch in the Capitol with the Senate GOP Conference.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) noted that Obama's time frame is not enough for project backers, saying of Obama’s comments: “I don’t know that that is going to get everybody real excited around here.”

The State Department is providing a 45-day comment period on the latest environmental review released in early March, but it’s not clear when the bureaucratic process will ultimately wrap up.

Obama’s comments, based on portrayals from lawmakers who attended, appear to have been slightly different from his remarks on Keystone when he met with House Republicans Wednesday.

A number of House Republicans left that meeting saying that Obama suggested a decision would come soon, perhaps within weeks.

Barrasso and others noted that Obama referenced the ongoing review process and the need to dot i's and cross t's before a final decision.

Barrasso joined Hoeven in pressing Obama on TransCanada Corp.’s proposed pipeline, which is supported by Republicans and a number of Democrats (Democrats are split on the topic).

“I said 'It is on your desk and the buck stops with you.' He said literally, 'It is not on my desk yet,' ” Barrasso said after the meeting in the Capitol. “He said 'You will have an answer by the end of the year.' ”

The president said the environmental impact of the project is not negligible but conceded the potential damage has been exaggerated by opponents, according to a GOP source familiar with the meeting.

Obama made similar comments to House GOP lawmakers Wednesday, according to House Republicans who attended.

Obama also told the House GOP that the project would not provide as many jobs as some backers have claimed, Republicans said Wednesday after meeting with Obama in the Capitol.

Hoeven and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) floated the latest bill Thursday to approve the pipeline, legislation that’s highly unlikely to clear the Senate but provides backers a rallying point.

Keystone has support from North Dakota and Montana lawmakers in part because it would also carry oil from the booming Bakken formation in those states.

The bill is co-sponsored by six other Republicans and six centrist Democrats, including Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

Hoeven said Obama and the Senate Republicans did find a broad area of agreement on energy.

“He also said something as we were talking about energy that I thought was important, and that is ... he said he supports hydraulic fracturing,” Hoeven told reporters in the Capitol.

Hydraulic fracturing, dubbed “fracking,” is the controversial oil-and-gas development method that’s enabling a U.S. production boom but also raising pollution fears.

But while there’s broad agreement, Republicans are critical of Obama administration efforts to increase federal regulation of fracking.

Fracking involves high-pressure injections of water, chemicals and sand into shale rock formations to open seams that enable hydrocarbons to flow.

Republicans and industry groups criticized planned Interior Department rules to govern fracking on public lands, alleging that state-level oversight is protective and that new federal mandates are not needed.

—This post was updated at 4:06 p.m. and 5:09 p.m.

Alexander Bolton contributed