WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Congress are starting the election year locked in a tussle over a proposed 1,700-mile oil pipeline from Canada to Texas that will force the White House to make a politically risky choice between two key Democratic constituencies.
Some unions say the Keystone XL pipeline would create thousands of jobs. Environmentalists fear it could lead to an oil spill disaster.
A law Obama signed just before Christmas that temporarily extended the payroll tax cut included a Republican-written provision compelling him to make a speedy decision on whether to build the pipeline. The administration is warning it would rather say no than rush a decision in an election year.
It's a dicey proposition for Obama, who enjoyed strong support from both organized labor and environmentalists in his winning 2008 campaign for the White House.
Environmental advocates, already disappointed with his failure to achieve climate change legislation and the administration's decision to delay new smog standards, have made it clear that approval of the pipeline would dampen their enthusiasm for Obama in the upcoming November election.
Some liberal donors even threatened to cut off funds to Obama's re-election campaign to protest the project, which opponents say would transport "dirty oil" that requires huge amounts of energy to extract.
If he rejects the pipeline, Obama risks losing support from organized labor, a key part of the Democratic base, for thwarting thousands of jobs.
Obama appeared to have skirted what some dubbed the "Keystone conundrum" in November when the State Department announced it was postponing a decision on the pipeline until after this year's election. Officials said they needed extra time to study routes that avoid an environmentally sensitive area of Nebraska that supplies water to eight states.
The affected area stretches just 65 miles through the Sandhills region of northern Nebraska, but the concerns were serious enough that the state's governor and senators opposed the project until the pipeline was moved.
Republican Gov. Dave Heineman, who opposed the initial route, says he supports efforts to accelerate the project, noting that provisions in the payroll tax bill allow the project developer to find a new route avoiding the Sandhills.
The new route would have to be approved by Nebraska environmental officials and the State Department, which has authority because the pipeline would cross an international border.
The pipeline would carry oil from tar sands in western Canada to refineries in Texas, passing through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. The project's developer, Calgary-based TransCanada, says the pipeline could create as many as 20,000 jobs, a figure opponents say is inflated. A State Department report last summer said the pipeline would create up to 6,000 jobs during construction.
The payroll tax cut law gives the Obama administration 60 days to decide whether to allow construction of the pipeline.
An "arbitrary deadline" for the permit decision would compromise the process, short-circuiting time needed to conduct required environmental reviews and preventing the issuance of a permit, the State Department warned in a written statement on Dec. 12. Obama administration officials confirmed that view after the payroll tax bill was approved.
Republicans call the threat little more than an excuse that allows Obama to placate environmental groups while not rejecting the pipeline outright.
"The only thing arbitrary about this decision is the decision by the president to say, 'Well, let's wait until after the next election,' " said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Boehner and other Republicans say the pipeline would help Obama achieve his top priority — creating jobs — without costing a dime of taxpayer money. They hope to portray Obama's reluctance to approve the pipeline as a sign he favors environmentalists over jobs.