It’s been largely obscured by surveillance scandals, the disastrous Obamacare rollout and the recent government shutdown, but a decision on the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline still looms over the White House.
With each day that decision is put off, both sides of the debate say, President Obama’s eventual answer grows more consequential for his legacy on issues of energy independence and the environment.
And while there remains a deep divide on the issue — with environmental groups and liberal Democrats saying “no” to the $7 billion Canada-to-Texas project, and a bipartisan congressional coalition, along with business, labor and energy-industry leaders, pushing for its construction — the opposing camps agree it is past time for the president to make a decision.
“I, for one, simply don’t understand why we haven’t built it yet,” said Rep. Michael C. Burgess, Texas Republican and member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
On Tuesday, that panel held a hearing to discuss new legislation that would take much of the approval authority for projects such as Keystone out of the hands of the White House. Similar bills have been introduced in the past but have failed; if they were to clear Congress, they surely would be vetoed by the president.
On Tuesday, thousands of coal miners descended on Capitol Hill to protest new Environmental Protection Agency regulations aimed at reducing carbon emissions from power plants.
Such rules, the coal industry and energy analysts say, amount to a de facto ban on new coal-fired facilities and eventually could put existing plants on the path to extinction.
While devastating for the fossil fuels sector, those and other, similar proposals are welcomed by Mr. Obama’s environmental supporters.
But they’re looking for more than just new EPA emissions guidelines and have put unprecedented pressure on the commander in chief to quash Keystone.
“If the president were to become the first world leader to block a big energy project on the grounds of its effects on climate, it might help dramatically reset the international negotiations” over global warming, wrote leading environmental activist Bill McKibben in a column for the Guardian newspaper this week.
“But that cascade of ‘ifs’ depends on Obama showing that he can actually stand up to the oil industry. To an increasingly disillusioned environmental movement, Keystone looks like a last chance,” he added.
The pipeline, which would transport Canadian oil sands through the U.S. heartland toward refineries on the Gulf Coast, undoubtedly is the most studied pipeline in U.S. history and enjoys wide public support. A Sept. 26 Pew Research poll, for example, found that 65 percent of Americans support its construction.
The company proposing the project, TransCanada, first submitted the pipeline for approval more than five years ago. Ongoing federal government reviews have mired the pipeline in a mass of red tape.