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Hillary Clinton has a Keystone XL problem (+video)

After six years of delays, the Keystone XL pipeline still hasn't been approved or rejected. Hillary Clinton's entry into the 2016 presidential race has renewed calls for the former secretary of State to take a stand on the divisive issue.

Hillary Clinton announced Sunday that she will run for president in 2016, and environmental groups are welcoming her to the race with the first of what could be many Keystone XL protests.

The controversial pipeline has become a litmus test for environmentalists concerned that Ms. Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, won’t take a bold enough stance to fight climate change. As Secretary of State, Clinton said she was “inclined” to sign-off on the pipeline, which would carry emissions-heavy oil sands from Alberta to US Gulf Coast refineries. Since then, Clinton has remained silent on Keystone XL, while the Obama administration has spent six years deciding whether to approve or reject it. A final decision, which could come in weeks or months, would take some of the heat off Clinton.

But for now, the pressure’s on: Climate activism group 350.org, which helped catapult Keystone XL into the limelight as a symbol of the contemporary environmental movement, is spearheading a protest outside Clinton’s Brooklyn campaign headquarters Monday.

Recommended: Keystone XL: 5 basic things you should know

“We all remember when Clinton said she was 'inclined' to approve Keystone XL. If the pipeline goes through, she'll shoulder part of the blame, and this protest today will be just a small taste of actions to come,” Jamie Henn, spokesperson for 350 Action, told the Monitor in an email Monday. “Clinton is saying many of the right things on climate – Keystone XL is an easy way to start doing the right thing.”

Clinton might seem an unlikely target, given the strong marks she has received from other environmental groups. But with few Democratic challengers and a Republican field that questions the science of climate change, green groups are training their eyes on Clinton, who they believe could take a more vocal stand against climate change. According to an ABC News poll, 59 percent of Americans say they “want the next president to be someone who favors government action to address climate change,” while 58 percent call climate change an important issue.

Environmentalists are also mindful that Obama’s environmental legacy – including plans to slash US power plant emissions 30 percent by 2030, and his work toward a binding international climate accord – will be carried about by his successor.


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“With the implementation of the Clean Power Plan and critical climate negotiations in Paris on the horizon, climate action will be a major theme in the 2016 election,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, an environmental group, said in a statement Sunday. “This election, Secretary Clinton has the opportunity to build on her strong environmental record, bring real leadership to the climate fight, and lay out her plan to grow the American clean energy economy.”

As Brune suggests, it’s not as if Clinton is against action on climate change. In December she vowed to protect Obama’s EPA emissions cuts “at all costs,” and last summer she called global warming “the most consequential, urgent, sweeping collection of challenges we face as a nation and a world” at Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s Clean Energy Summit in Nevada. Another point in Clinton’s favor for environmentalists is that John Podesta, the architect of Obama’s climate strategy, is serving as Clinton’s campaign chairman.

Still, environmental groups are eager for Clinton to make her specific environmental positions known – especially on Keystone, which was in her bailiwick as Secretary of State. The pipeline requires State Department approval because it crosses the US-Canada border.

Environmentalists and many Democrats say Keystone XL would be a climate disaster, since fossil fuel emissions are driving global warming. The State Department’s own analysis of the project found it was unlikely to have much of an impact from either an economic or environmental standpoint.

The oil industry and other pipeline backers – including most Republicans and some Democrats – argue that the pipeline could create jobs and reduce US reliance on oil from the volatile Middle East.

And now that Clinton has announced her candidacy, environmental activists say it’s time to stake out a position.

“That unwillingness to take a position on something, it's significantly more indefensible when you're a declared presidential candidate,” 350.org spokesperson Karthik Ganapathy told Business Insider last week. "It's even more indefensible when Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have taken a position on it when you, as the Democratic front-runner, have not."

Others have called on Clinton to take up a bevy of other environmental causes. Friday environmental groups sent a letter urging her to oppose fracking, the oil and gas drilling technique that has propelled the US energy boom. New York state has banned fracking amid safety and health concerns.

But the Sunday launch of Clinton’s campaign – with a YouTube video called “Getting Started” – was light on details. And that means Keystone is still a problem for Clinton, at least as long as President Obama declines to approve or reject it.

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