Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton announced her opposition to the Keystone XL oil pipeline, breaking months of silence on a hot-button issue that had her torn between environmentalists and labor unions that are both powerful forces within the party.
Mrs. Clinton said that she sided with environmentalists because the long-stalled pipeline project had become a “distraction” from advancing a climate-change agenda.
“I oppose it because I don’t think it is in the best interest of what we need to do to fight climate change,” Mrs. Clinton said at a campaign event at an elementary school in Des Moines, Iowa.
Mrs. Clinton had hinted a day earlier that she would soon announce her position on the proposed cross-country oil pipeline, but the announcement came as a surprise during a question-and-answer session.
The question about the Keystone XL project was posed by a school-age girl in the audience, prompting speculation that the question was planted by the campaign.
The revelation of Mrs. Clinton’s pipeline views also coincided with the arrival in the U.S. of Pope Francis, who strongly advocates for fighting climate change and has called it “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”
Environmentalists applauded Mrs. Clinton for joining the cause. Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund, said she was “thrilled.”
“This is exactly the kind of leadership we need in order to leave a healthy planet for our children and grandchildren,” she said. “Secretary Clinton’s recent clean energy proposal, coupled with her opposition to drilling in the Arctic Ocean and now to Keystone XL, is both inspiring and exciting.”
Environmentalists oppose building the 875-mile pipeline because of the increased production of fossil fuels and the risk of oil spills.
Labor unions, some of which have criticized Mrs. Clinton for hedging on the issue, support the project because it would create jobs.
They also point out that Canada has said the oil will be mined and burned no matter what, meaning there’ll be no global emissions difference, and, if sold to American customers, it would then be shipped to the U.S. via railcars, which also risk spills.
The pipeline question added to suspicion of Mrs. Clinton within the labor movement. At least two major unions, SEIU and AFSCME, recently decided to withhold their endorsements for president in hope that Vice President Joseph R. Biden, a longtime union booster, would enter the race and provide an alternative to Mrs. Clinton, reported Politico.
Officials at several key unions, including the AFL-CIO, did not immediately issue statements in response to Mrs. Clinton’s announcement.
Mrs. Clinton’s decision to break with unions in favor of environmentalists was the latest in a series of moves to the left, including embracing liberal policies for raising wages for workers. She’s made the moves in part to counter a rising challenge on the left from Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent and avowed socialist seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.
The proposed pipeline would carry a heavy crude oil from western Canada to Steele City, Nebraska, where it would connect with an existing pipeline to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
The project has vexed the Obama administration since Mrs. Clinton served as secretary of state and oversaw the start of the approval process.
The Obama administration has yet to make a decision about the project.
Mrs. Clinton said that she kept mum because she did not want to interfere with the decision process by President Obama and her successor, Secretary of State John Kerry. But she said the process was taking too long and silence wasn’t fair to the electorate.
“I thought this would be decided by now … but it hasn’t been decided, and I feel now I have a responsibility to you and other voters who ask me about this,” Mrs. Clinton said.
White House spokesman Josh Ernest said the decision process has suffered many delays, including a nearly yearlong legal challenge, but was still going on at the State Department.
“Once the State Department has put forward a recommendation, the president will consider it and he’ll make a decision. But right now, that policy process rests at the State Department,” he said on CNN’s “Situation Room.”
Mr. Sanders, who previously faulted Mrs. Clinton for dodging the pipeline question, noted the long time it took for her to provide an answer.
“As a senator who has vigorously opposed the Keystone pipeline from the beginning, I am glad that Secretary Clinton finally has made a decision and I welcome her opposition to the pipeline,” he said. “Clearly it would be absurd to encourage the extraction and transportation of some of the dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet.”
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has struggled to gain traction for his run for the Democratic presidential nomination, hammered Mrs. Clinton for failing to lead on critical issues.
“On issue after issue — marriage equality, drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, children fleeing violence in Central America, the Syrian refugee crisis, and now the Keystone Pipeline, Secretary Clinton has followed — not forged — public opinion,” he said in a statement. “Leadership is about stating where you stand on critical issues, regardless of how they poll or focus group.”
“The American people want a President who will lead — not just someone who will tell them what they want to hear,” said Mr. O’Malley, who has vocally opposed the pipeline since entering the race.
After aligning herself with environmentalists, Mrs. Clinton she said that she would roll out a comprehensive climate change agenda in the next few days. She described the plan as a “North American approach” to promoting clean energy and fighting climate change.