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Politics / ENVIRONMENT

Ring Around the White House Illustrates Obama's Political Bind on Keystone

White House Building(Liz Lynch)

photo of Olga Belogolova
November 4, 2011

Say “yes,”  and we drop the grassroots organizing.

Say “no,”  and we’ll come out for you like we did in 2008.

That’s what thousands of Keystone XL pipeline protesters will be saying to President Obama on Sunday when they form a ring around the White House, illustrating just what a political bind he finds himself in when it comes to the controversial project. The pipeline would bring carbon-heavy tar-sands oil from Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas.

 

“If President Obama denies the permit, it will unleash a wave of enthusiasm,” Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, told National Journal.

From the outset, it doesn’t seem like that big of a promise. After all, environmental activists and most young voters probably wouldn’t want to put a climate-change denier in the White House. Nor are they likely to support someone who wants to dismantle or at least further restrain the Environmental Protection Agency.

But opponents of the pipeline have a good point and just might get what they want, says Stephen Brown, a lobbyist for Texas-based oil refiner Tesoro.

“Why would I approve this thing when my entire base, when my entire constituency, is focused on a path forward on energy that does not include fossil fuels?” is a question that Obama will be asking himself, Brown explained. “Who is he going to piss off? He is going to be pissing off people like me.” Those people are going to vote for the likes of Rick Perry anyway, Brown said.

By saying no to the pipeline, Obama “becomes a hero of the left overnight,” Brown said. And Obama needs that kind of support right now. Grassroots organizing is largely credited for mobilizing his base in 2008, getting voters to come out in record numbers, and eventually getting him into the White House. That kind of activism can’t be lightly dismissed ahead of 2012.

“It could be pretty substantial in the swing states,” said Brown. “I don’t think he needs to win Ohio, but he can’t win without Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, and Nevada.”

Saying “no” doesn’t just mean more grassroots organizing; it also means more money.  Obama can raise a slew of money from Democratic donors as well as from Hollywood by rejecting the project proposal.

Sunday’s protest will feature actor and activist Mark Ruffalo, Robert Kennedy Jr., and environmental activist Bill McKibben, among other notable names. Actors such as Robert Redford, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Darryl Hannah have also been actively involved with Tar Sands Action, the main group organizing pipeline protests, and may be at Sunday’s Washington event. Just as he needs young voters and environmental activists, Obama needs entertainment heavyweights to carry him through 2012 — and he knows it, too. In his most recent trip to Los Angeles, Obama took the time to meet with Hollywood’s elite, telling them than he needs their influence.

“The Bay Area and Northern California were huge sources of grassroots donations and energy for the Obama campaign in 2008. If he wants these people back strongly for him in 2012, he needs to hear us on this,” Elijah Zarlin, a former writer of fundraising e-mails for Obama and campaign manager at CREDO Action, said in a statement.

Brown, who suspects that many of these political calculations are being made inside the White House gates, thinks that Obama may just say “no” to the pipeline.

“There are definitely concerns within the White House,” Tar Sands Action spokesman Daniel Kessler told National Journal, saying that he has spoken to White House officials.

“He made a lot of promises when he was running for president,” said Kessler. “If he didn’t mean those things, he shouldn’t have said them.”

While environmental activists oppose the project because extraction and production of tar-sands oil is much more damaging to the environment and emits more greenhouse gases than the processes for obtaining and processing conventional oil, proponents say it would slash U.S. dependence on foreign oil and create thousands of U.S. jobs.

For pipeline workers, the 1,700-mile, $7 billion Keystone XL is the “holy grail” of jobs, said Chris Hinchcliffe, a pipeline worker who lives in Washington state but is currently working on a project in Colorado. Hinchcliffe, who works to make sure pipelines do not damage the environment or local power and phone lines, said that by providing stable and long-term jobs for many people, the project is “something than can change some people’s lives.”

While environmental activists say that Obama’s messaging on energy policy should be in line with his promises in 2008, laborers such as Hinchcliffe point to Obama’s messaging in 2011: jobs, jobs, jobs.

“From the political standpoint, a person is really only as good as what they offer and what they follow through with,” said Hinchcliffe. With Obama going around the country talking about creating jobs and boosting the economy, approving Keystone XL would add to his credibility, he said. “I’m not an economist, I’m not an economics major or anything, but it seems pretty simple in my layman's mind.”

People like Hinchcliffe, however, haven’t been loud enough.

“Have you ever been in a situation when nothing you say or nothing you do will really make a difference?” he asked, saying that many of his colleagues just feel that their “voice doesn’t matter.”

Under federal law, the State Department is tasked with making this permit decision because the pipeline crosses international borders, but State has come under criticism for its environmental impact study and because of concerns about its impartiality. Opponents of the proposed pipeline question whether State faces a conflict of interest because the department had assigned its environmental impact review to Cardno Entrix, a consulting firm with major clients that include TransCanada, the company seeking to build the Keystone pipeline. There are also concerns that one of TransCanada’s lobbyists was once a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Obama insisted in an Omaha, Neb., television interview earlier this week that he will decide what is best for the American people and the economy. Whether he ultimately makes the decision or not, its consequences will fall on his shoulders regardless.

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