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 BarrassoJohn BarrassoLawmakers fundraise amid rising town hall pressure EPA delays rule on mining cleanup funding EPA head previously used private email for government business MORE (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 HoevenJohn HoevenA guide to the committees: Senate GOP senators unveil bill to give Congress control of consumer bureau budget Dem senator: DeVos bigger threat to education than grizzlies MORE (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 ThuneJohn ThuneSenate confirms Wilbur Ross as Commerce secretary Yahoo reveals new details about security Conquering Trump returns to conservative summit MORE (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.

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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 BaucusMax BaucusFive reasons why Tillerson is likely to get through Business groups express support for Branstad nomination The mysterious sealed opioid report fuels speculation MORE (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 ManchinJoe ManchinDem 2020 hopefuls lead pack in opposing Trump Cabinet picks Manchin: Sanders backers should challenge me in Dem primary Greens launch ads against two GOP senators for Pruitt votes MORE (D-W.Va.), Jon TesterJon TesterSenate votes to advance Trump's nominee for Interior secretary Montana is not a ‘deep red’ state Poll: Senate should confirm Gorsuch MORE (D-Mont.) and Mary LandrieuMary LandrieuFive unanswered questions after Trump's upset victory Pavlich: O’Keefe a true journalist Trump’s implosion could cost GOP in Louisiana Senate race MORE (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