The Obama administration may now be taking a safer middle ground on the Keystone XL pipeline project. But the controversy won't just disappear before the 2012 election and could still cost the president politically.
Rather than approve or deny the pipeline—which would extend from Canadian oil sands to U.S. refineries near the Gulf of Mexico—the State Department announced Thursday that it's considering an alternate route for Transcanada's Keystone XL project, potentially adding more than a year to an already politicized decision-making process. But given the pro-oil stance of the GOP candidates, whether it's before or after the election, President Obama's going to have to make his position on the project clear for voters, even if comes at his peril.
Despite the hyperpartisan nature of energy policy in recent years, the Keystone XL pipeline has seemingly crossed party lines, with Republicans and Democrats alike citing job creation and domestic energy security as reasons for its approval. But, environmental groups, a significant voter base for Obama, have been ardently opposed.
On Sunday, environmental activists literally had the White House circled in protest. They argued that in addition to the risks of a potential leak or spill, the oil produced from Canadian oil sands which would be carried by the pipeline could release a greater amount of greenhouse gases than typical American crude oil.
Groups like Friends of the Earth praised the news of a delay Thursday, but also redoubled their pressure on Obama to stop the project in its tracks.
"Make no mistake: this fight is not over. Ultimately, this dangerous pipeline must not be built. As long as TransCanada and its army of oil lobbyists seek approval, we will challenge them at every turn. And we will continue to hold President Obama accountable to his campaign promises to curb lobbyist influence and provide bold leadership on climate change," said Erich Pica, the group's president.
GOP candidates, on the other hand, have come out in strong support of the project. Even former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who splits with much of his party in recognizing human causes for climate change, has voiced his support for the pipeline. And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney even made it part of his economic plan. Romney, the presumed GOP frontrunner, has already criticized Obama for delaying the project, and his campaign has confirmed that he plans to okay the project if he becomes president. "Our failure to move forward as quickly as possible with this project hurts our own energy supply and helps our competitors," he wrote in his jobs plan earlier this year.
GOP candidates have little to lose if environmentalists abandon Obama in 2012 as they've threatened to do if the project is approved. So, as the general election debates heat up next year, the GOP nominee could push President Obama to clarify his position publicly. His support would lose him environmentalists' support, but if he denounces the project, votes from the labor movement or from independents could also be at stake.
And at the very least, a Republican opponent like Romney could continue to use Keystone XL to bash Obama on the basis of jobs. Already the oil industry is starting that line of attack. "There's only one job being focused on here," American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard told reporters Thursday. "And it's not the 20,000 jobs this pipeline will create."