Keystone XL: Could Obama strike a deal with Congress?

Keystone XL approval will soon make its way out of the GOP Congress and to the president's desk. Obama has promised to veto the bill, but it's still possible he'll approve the pipeline in a deal with congressional Republicans down the road.

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Demonstrator Sharon Garlena and others rally in support of Obama's pledge to veto any legislation approving the Keystone XL pipeline, outside the White House in Washington on Jan. 10.

There’s one place where Keystone XL supporters and opponents seem to agree: It’s time for President Obama to decide on the country’s most famous (or infamous) energy infrastructure proposal.

Backers and detractors alike have called for the administration to approve or reject the oil sands project throughout its six years of delays, but now pressure on the White House is mounting. A recent decision by the Nebraska Supreme Court puts the ball largely in the president’s court, and a newly-minted Republican Congress is eager to take matters into its own hands.

The GOP-controlled Senate began debate on its Keystone XL approval bill Monday, even though Obama has already promised to veto the legislation so his administration can continue deliberation. Technically, the State Department must issue a statement declaring whether or not the pipeline would serve the national interest, but analysts say Obama can make a decision whenever he wants. The Senate has the votes to pass its Keystone XL bill in coming weeks, meaning Obama is the only roadblock for pipeline backers. And it seems everyone is urging Obama to make a decision – from pro-industry supporters, to anti-Keystone environmentalists.

The Senate’s action, which aims to force Obama’s hand, comes after the controversial pipeline moved two steps closer to approval last week. The House passed its own bill approving the project, and the Nebraska Supreme Court threw out a lawsuit challenging its route through the state.

“It's time for the president to put an end to this damn thing,” said Randy Thompson, a Nebraska landowner and lead plaintiff in the court case against Keystone XL.

President Obama has said he will only approve the pipeline if he finds that it will not “significantly exacerbate” climate change caused by carbon emissions from fossil fuels. The 1,179-mile pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta, North Dakota, and Montana to Texas Gulf Coast refineries. Because the route crosses the US-Canada border, it requires State Department approval.

But some experts have said Keystone XL’s impact on the climate would be a drop in the bucket in the context of global emissions. With that in mind, it’s possible Obama could use Keystone XL as a bargaining chip with Republicans – either to advance his carbon-cutting climate agenda elsewhere, or on some other compromise with the new, GOP-led Congress.


“What if the White House saw the fight over Keystone as an opportunity for a larger deal?” The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza asked last week, pointing out that “Keystone XL is one of the few G.O.P. priorities in which the philosophical gulf between Obama and congressional Republicans is relatively narrow.”

Privately, Obama is skeptical of environmentalists’ claim that Keystone XL would be a climate and environmental disaster, Lizza writes, and the State Department’s environmental impact studies have echoed that sentiment.

All that suggests Obama could be dragging his feet because, if he’s going to approve the pipeline in the end, he might as well get something out of Republicans in exchange.

“It would make more sense for him to go forward with it later and get the credit for it,” Robert Stavins, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, told the Monitor in a telephone interview last week.

Approving the pipeline now would make it look like Obama is capitulating to Republicans, Professor Stavins said. But many on Capitol Hill – including some Democrats – are tired of waiting.

“It's time for the State Department and President to make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline – however they decide – because six years is beyond long enough,” said Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, one of a handful of Senate Democrats who support the pipeline.

Pipeline critics say Obama has enough information to make a decision in the exact opposite direction.

“We already know more than enough to ‘Just Say No’ to the proposed Canadian pipeline through America’s heartland,” Danielle Droitsch, Canada Project director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said in a statement last week.

In his veto threat, Obama said congressional interference conflicts with the executive branch’s authority to determine issues in the national interest. And Obama may have a point.

“This is a decision, legally, which is up to the president. This is not a decision which requires congressional action,” Stavins said.

Recently, Obama has openly challenged to what extent the pipeline would actually benefit Americans.

"We've got to make sure that it's not adding to the problem of carbon and climate change," Obama told Stephen Colbert on his satirical TV show last month. "We have to examine that, and we have to weigh that against the amount of jobs that it's actually going to create, which aren't a lot."

But that isn’t stopping Congressional Republicans.

“He’s had six years to approve a project that will increase U.S. energy supplies and create closer ties with our nearest ally and neighbor, and he’s refused to act,” Senate Energy Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska said in a statement. “Regardless of whatever new excuse he may come up with, Congress is moving forward.”

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