Pipeline Politics

President Obama has been stalling on Keystone XL for years. Now he finally has to make a decision.

protest against the Keystone XL pipeline.
Tourists walk around teepees set up on the National Mall on April 23, 2014, as part of a weeklong demonstration by the Cowboy and Indian Alliance, to protest against the Keystone XL pipeline. Will President Obama disappoint the protesters?

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The environment took a beating on Election Day, but what happens next could be even more painful for green groups and their climate-conscious allies. Republicans, who will control both chambers of Congress next year for the first time in nearly a decade, wasted little time this week making it clear that approving the Keystone XL pipeline is at the top of their legislative to-do list. Greenlighting the 1,700-mile pipeline has been a Republican priority for years. Now they finally have the votes to do it.

That’s a significant problem for President Obama, who has gone to great lengths to avoid tipping his hand on whether he’ll approve the $8 billion project that would carry 830,000 barrels of carbon-heavy crude per day from Alberta’s oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. Obama has maintained that he can’t decide one way or the other until his administration is finished reviewing the proposal, a noncommittal answer that has frustrated nearly everyone involved in the debate, and one he repeated during Wednesday’s post-midterm press conference. “There’s an independent process that’s moving forward, I’m going to let that process play out,” Obama said, referring to a federal review that has been going on for six years.

The White House maintains that the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency need more time to weigh the benefits of the pipeline against its environmental impacts. But the delay has also allowed Obama to avoid, albeit somewhat awkwardly, having to take a high-profile litmus test in the larger climate debate. The president won’t have the luxury of waiting any longer after Republicans take over Congress in January.

Environmentalists and their climate-conscious allies argue that the pipeline would significantly accelerate the development of oil sands, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels on the planet. They want Obama to block the project to send a clear message that he’s serious about curbing U.S. carbon emissions. Industry groups and their more business-focused friends, meanwhile, can’t fathom putting concerns about the climate above the nation’s near-term economic and national security interests. They contend that the oil deposits will be exploited one way or the other, so the United States would be silly not to get in on the action. The pipeline’s approval, its backers contend, would boost U.S. energy security while also creating thousands of construction jobs at home. (Just how many jobs remains in dispute: TransCanada, the company behind the project, claims it will create as many as 20,000, but a report from the Cornell University Global Labor Institute pegs the number at fewer than 5,000.)

In the grand scheme of global emissions, the pipeline would have only a marginal impact. But it’s shaping up to be the opening climate skirmish in what will likely be a series of them in the next Congress. Chief among the depressing realities facing climate-conscious Democrats is that a GOP Senate majority means that Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California liberal, will have to hand over the Environment and Public Works gavel to Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who has written a book called The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. Senate Republicans won’t have the votes to strip the EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases, but they are expected to make life hell for the agency by hauling officials in front of Congress on a regular basis and taking aim at its budget. That could have major global repercussions at next year’s U.N. climate convention in Paris, where the president will have to convince other world leaders that the U.S. government does not think that global warming is a hoax or a conspiracy.

The oil and gas industry, meanwhile, can hardly wait for 2015. The GOP has already signaled that it will push a number of production-friendly energy policies. “I think you’re going to see us bring up energy legislation right away and Keystone will be one of the first things we pass,” North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven predicted late Tuesday night as the electoral map turned redder by the minute.

The GOP-controlled House has already passed a number of Keystone bills in recent years, and won’t have a problem doing so again next year. In the past, such efforts would languish in the Senate, where Democrats had the votes to prevent a binding resolution from coming up on the floor. That firewall won’t exist once the incoming class of senators is sworn in early next year.

Even before the GOP’s midterm gains, most informal Senate whip counts showed the pro-pipeline crowd with 57 votes, a total that included all 45 Senate Republicans and a dozen moderate Democrats. Now, pipeline support should climb. The next Senate will include Iowa Republican Joni Ernst, who takes over for retiring, anti-pipeline Democrat Tom Harkin; West Virginia Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who will replace retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller; and Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner, who ousted Sen. Mark Udall. Meanwhile, South Dakota Republican Mike Rounds will take over for retiring Sen. Tim Johnson, who was on the fence about the pipeline but appeared willing to leave the final decision to the Obama administration.

Add it all up, and Team Keystone appears likely to have a filibuster-proof majority of at least 61 votes, a number that could still grow if a handful of other Democrats break with the White House once it becomes clear the bill is heading for passage regardless of their opposition.

Once a Keystone bill arrives at the White House, the president will have a very tough call to make. The most likely option would be for Obama to veto the bill, justifying such a move by pointing to the ongoing review. Republicans don’t have the 67 votes they’d need to override a veto—but they could and likely would go on every talk show in the known universe to paint the president as obstructionist. If there’s any hope at all that the White House and congressional Republicans could play nice and work together during Obama’s final two years—and honestly, there probably shouldn’t be—then this early fight would crush those dreams.

The other option would be for Obama to relent and approve the pipeline—either by signing the Keystone bill or potentially even signing off on the project later this year before Republicans take control of the Senate. That, however, would enrage environmentalists, who are already skeptical of what they see as Obama’s lackluster climate record. It would also make the president’s U.N. sales pitch that much more difficult.

The only people with nothing to lose politically are congressional Republicans, and they seem to know it. If Obama signs their bill, the GOP can point to the pipeline as proof they’re delivering on their campaign promises. If the president vetoes it, he allows the GOP to argue ahead of 2016 that it’s the Democrats who are responsible for the gridlock in Washington. Pipeline or no pipeline, then, the new GOP-controlled Congress will be off to a running start.