White House, GOP battle for supremacy on Keystone pipeline

With President Obama’s decision on the Keystone XL pipeline looming, the White House and Republicans will spend the next several weeks trying to win the messaging war over the controversial project.

The stakes are high for both sides. Obama risks backlash from key union supporters if he rejects the project, but faces the ire of environmental groups if he approves it. 

Republicans, meanwhile, stand to score a political victory if Obama green lights the pipeline. But their successful effort to force a decision could backfire if the president rejects the pipeline and pins blame on the GOP for rushing the review. 


TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline would carry oil sands crude from Alberta, Canada, to refineries along the Gulf coast. The proposed project, which has been under federal review for years, has set off a firestorm in Washington, with supporters arguing the pipeline will boost the ailing economy and opponents raising concerns about oil spills and greenhouse gas emissions from oil-sands production.

Both sides are mobilizing to win the messaging war. White House and Obama administration officials have said they will have little choice but to reject the pipeline under the 60-day timeline that was outlined in the payroll tax package that passed in December.

By arguing that the GOP-backed measure will force the administration to reject Keystone on a technicality, the White House can avoid having to weigh in on the substantive issues raised by the pipeline — including whether it will boost the economy or harm the environment.

Obama sought in November to delay a final verdict on the pipeline by calling for review of alternative routes around the environmentally sensitive Sand Hills region of Nebraska. The move delayed a decision on the project until 2013 to give the administration time to conduct additional review of the new route.

The State Department, which is leading a multi-agency review of the proposed pipeline, has said the administration will have no choice but to reject Keystone because the expedited timeline pushed by Republicans will not leave enough time to conduct the review.

Other administration and White House officials have echoed that line. White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said earlier this month on Twitter that the GOP-backed Keystone provision “simply shortens the review process in a way that virtually guarantees that the pipeline will NOT be approved.”

Environmental groups echoed the administration’s comments this week, arguing that Republicans have sealed Keystone’s demise.

“The president is going to have no choice but to reject the pipeline,” said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of international programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I don’t see any wiggle room.”

Proponents of the project are pushing back. Marty Durbin, a lobbyist at the American Petroleum Institute, said the measure in the tax package allows for rerouting the pipeline around the environmentally sensitive Sand Hills region of Nebraska, a requirement the Obama administration has said is essential for approval of the project.

“It gives them the time they need, however much time they need, to review what’s going on in Nebraska,” Durbin said.

Under the Keystone measure, if Obama approves the pipeline, the final permit must require the rerouting, along with necessary review of the new route by the state of Nebraska. But it specifically bars additional federal environmental review of the project, as the State Department has proposed.

Supporters of the pipeline are upping the pressure on Obama to quickly approve the project, arguing there will be political consequences if he rejects it.

“In our view it’s a slam dunk decision because it benefits the country in terms of jobs and national security,” Durbin said. “I think there will be a potential backlash if he rejects the project."

Matt Letourneau, spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, said Obama needs to make a decision on the merits.

“Right now, the issue in front of the president is whether the pipeline is in the national interest or not, and that’s where we think the discussion should be,” Letourneau said. “Using some other issue as a reason to avoid making that decision, to us, is not sound policy.”