- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 9, 2014

DENVER — After five years of stalling on the Keystone XL pipeline, President Obama suddenly has a half-dozen compelling reasons to make up his mind, and all of them are running to retain their Senate seats.

The proposed 1,700-mile pipeline from western Canada to the Gulf Coast has strong public support in states that Senate Democrats are fighting to hold in November. Even Republicans acknowledge that the project’s approval, with its anticipated economic boost, likely would improve the Democrats’ chances in battleground states such as Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, Montana and North Carolina.

Mr. Obama “would be giving cover to several red-state Democrats if he approved it,” said Republican strategist Dick Wadhams.

With that in mind, the oil and gas industry is mounting a full-court press urging the president to green-light the pipeline. A survey by Democratic polling firm Hickman Analytics released last week for the pro-industry Consumer Energy Alliance found that pipeline-backing voters would be less likely to support four at-risk Senate Democrats if Mr. Obama refuses to sign off on the project.

The problem for industry is that the pipeline has become a rallying cry for the movement fighting climate change. Anti-Keystone street protests are on the uptick, along with warnings from green groups that presidential approval would be unforgivable and could result in civil disobedience. Both sides were busy rounding up and submitting comments by Friday’s deadline on the State Department’s long-awaited environmental impact report issued Jan. 31.

The report concluded that the project would not increase carbon emissions significantly, in no small part because Canada has said that no matter what Mr. Obama decides on the pipeline, it will mine the Alberta tar sands, will sell the resulting oil to the U.S. or someone else, and will ship it to that customer via Keystone or some other way.

Calls for the president to reject the pipeline are likely to bubble up on the Senate floor during Monday’s all-night talkfest on climate change sponsored by the Senate Climate Action Task Force. So far, 28 Senate Democrats have indicated that they will participate.

“The White House would have to twist itself into pretzels to approve this thing,” said Jamie Henn, spokesman for the environmental group 350.org. “Our hope is they’ll do the right thing and see a real political advantage to it as well.”

Meanwhile, the White House position remains as inscrutable as ever. The pipeline recently received the endorsement of former Interior Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar, and Mr. Obama gave encouragement to fossil fuel producers in his Jan. 28 State of the Union address by praising natural gas and its impact on reducing carbon emissions.

A few weeks later, however, Secretary of State John F. Kerry doubled down by calling climate change “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.”

“There’s a sea of mixed messages coming out of the administration, and I think it’s the result of this being an election year,” said Mr. Wadhams. “They’re trying to save some Democrats in the red states, and I think once they get past the election, I think all that goes away.”

The president’s blessing is needed before TransCanada can build the $5.4 billion extension because the pipeline crosses the U.S.-Canada border.

The exhaustive State Department report was seen as the final hurdle, although Mr. Kerry officially has 60 days after public comment ended Friday to make a recommendation. After that, there is no deadline for a White House decision but there is expected to be plenty of urgency.

Much of that urgency may come from struggling Democrats such as Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana. The Hickman poll found that 67 percent of Louisiana voters surveyed backed the Keystone project and 45 percent of those supporters would be less likely to vote for Ms. Landrieu if the pipeline isn’t approved.

“Approximately half of the respondents who support building Keystone XL said the president denying the construction permit would deter their support for a Democrat incumbent,” said the poll’s report.

Ms. Landrieu has announced her support for the pipeline, as have Sen. Kay R. Hagan of North Carolina and Sen. Mark L. Pryor of Arkansas. The fourth incumbent Democrat in the poll, Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, voted against the Keystone XL last year in a nonbinding resolution.

But the poll concluded that the senators’ personal support for the pipeline wouldn’t be enough for pro-pipeline voters.

“From the voters’ perspective, publicly supporting Keystone XL is not enough,” said the Hickman poll report. “Voter enthusiasm for these candidates dampens if the President rejects the Keystone XL Pipeline.”

National surveys have consistently shown that voters favor the pipeline’s construction. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Friday found that two-thirds of adults surveyed favored the pipeline, an increase of 6 percentage points from 2012.

However Mr. Henn said Democrats need to consider that this support is much lower among their party’s key constituencies such as younger voters and urbanites. While 75 percent of those who identify themselves as conservatives back the pipeline, just 46 percent of liberals do.

“If the Democrats look at this the other way, they get very little out of approving Keystone,” Mr. Henn said. “Big oil is still going to spend mostly for Republicans and spend against them, and they’re going to lose a lot. They’re going to lose a lot of enthusiasm from young voters.”

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