WASHINGTON—United States President Barack Obama is being pressured by members of his own party to approve the Keystone XL pipeline by May 31, in a letter that pushes the pipeline issue toward centre stage in the last election during his presidency.
The president has received a letter from 11 pro-pipeline Democratic senators—nearly half of whom face midterm re-election battles this fall that will help determine whether their party keeps control of the Senate.
And it’s that chamber that gives U.S. presidents the power to shape the judiciary and federal agencies with their chosen nominees, meaning that the 2014 election could have political repercussions beyond the final two years of Obama’s presidency.
The letter-writers say their proposed timeline gives the president 15 days to make his choice, beyond the current 90-day multi-department review led by the State Department.
They also say the decision should be positive, given the conclusions of different environmental assessments, and should happen in time for the construction season.
“We are writing to request that you use your executive authority to implement an explicit timeline for Secretary of State John Kerry (to make a recommendation),” said the letter, dated April 10.
“This is a process that has now gone on well past five years, has involved two applications (and) five federal reviews…
“It has already taken much longer than anyone can reasonably justify. This is an international project that will provide our great friend and ally Canada a direct route to our refineries … Canada has done its part and has been a willing and patient partner throughout this process.”
The letter does not mention this fall’s midterm elections—but given that it was sent by members from only one party, in the only chamber Democrats currently control and are in danger of losing, the political message is obvious.
Five of the signatories face re-election races in less liberal parts of the country, in the South and Alaska.
Republicans have used Keystone as Exhibit A in their effort to brand Democrats as an impediment to job-creation.
It’s unlikely that message would carry any resonance in the more staunchly Democratic parts of the country, but it could sway a few votes in Louisiana, Arkansas, Virginia, North Carolina and Alaska—where the election-facing letter signatories come from.
As if to underscore that point, a top Republican in the Senate mentioned Keystone on the chamber floor this week.
Mitch McConnell was delivering a broader partisan message: that Obama’s party appeared more focused on the November election than on creating jobs.
“The only jobs Senate Democrats seem interested in these days are their own,” McConnell said, mentioning Keystone as one of several job-creation possibilities.
“This is a big problem. Not only does it reinforce the widespread belief that Democrats aren’t serious about jobs, it also reinforces a growing impression that Democrats are simply out of their depth when it comes to the economy.
“Think about it. Washington Democrats are well into their sixth year of trying to get the economy back on track.”
Republicans are united on Keystone.
It’s the Democrats who face internal divisions.
Should Obama approve the pipeline, he would disappoint members of his own base.
One of the most committed project opponents, who has worked tirelessly to organize the opposition to it in Nebraska, happens to be the former head of the Young Democrats of America.
Now living in Nebraska, Jane Kleeb says she gets the politics behind the letter.
But she regrets it.
“I understand politically the need for red-state Democrats to have issues (other than Obamacare) they can use to distance themselves from the President,” Kleeb wrote in an email.
“Keystone XL is a perfect issue for some Members of Congress.”
However, she added, the project would be a step forward for Canada’s oilsands and a step backward for clean energy.
“When it comes to protecting our water, it’s not red or blue, it’s clean or polluted,” she said. “One of these days Democrats and Republicans will see protecting our water and property rights as a winning political issue. It’s a shame that has not happened yet.”
For his part, Obama has already hinted a decision is coming soon.
He told a recent gathering of governors to expect a choice within a couple of months.
A spokesperson for the president was non-committal this week.
“Our position on that process hasn’t changed, which is that it needs to run its appropriate course without interference from the White House or Congress,” said Jay Carney.
“It was because of actions taken by Republicans in Congress that one delay was caused in the process already. So that review continues at the State Department where it’s housed, in accordance with past practice of previous administrations of both parties. And when there’s a decision to be announced, it will be announced.”