It's beginning to look a lot like 2012 all over again as resistance in Nebraska points to a months-long delay in President Obama's ruling on the Keystone XL pipeline, possibly until after the next election.
Soon after the Cornhusker State's attorney general appealed an hours-old court decision that invalidated a Nebraska law passed to expedite a new route for KXL, Obama added geopolitical context to his review of the oil sands crude pipeline while standing beside the Canadian premier whose government has lobbied hard for its approval.
After praising the economic value of North America's "amazing bounty of traditional fossil fuels" during a joint appearance with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Obama vowed to set an example for developing nations ahead of next year's global emissions talks in Paris.
Since "we only have one planet," Obama said, the United States and its continental neighbors should work to "promote economic development and growth, recognizing that we're not going to immediately transition off of fossil fuels," while also projecting leadership in order to maintain "leverage over" China, India and other rising greenhouse gas generators.
His remarks, which followed a defense of the federal review of the $5.4 billion KXL, suggest that the White House views the pipeline's impact on climate geopolitics as less than settled despite the State Department's prediction last month of a minor emissions impact (E&ENews PM, Jan. 31).
Obama spoke after a district court judge in Nebraska struck down a law that empowered its GOP governor to approve a new route for the 1,179-mile heavy oil conduit without a review by the independent state Public Service Commission, or PSC (E&ENews PM, Feb. 19). Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning quickly appealed that decision, but it remains unclear whether a new judge can finish hearing the case before the PSC process runs its course.
PSC rules allow its siting reviews to take up to seven months following a formal application by KXL sponsor TransCanada Corp. Given the political pressure already mounting on pro-pipeline Democratic lawmakers who must face voters in November, such as Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, the new uncertainty in Nebraska appears to bolster the administration's case for holding off on a KXL ruling until after Election Day.
"President Obama refused to make a decision on Keystone XL until it had a route in accordance with state law, and there is no reason for the president to change course now," Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Anthony Swift wrote yesterday in a response to the Nebraska court decision.
Beyond the White House's role, the State Department could choose to pause its national interest determination on the pipeline while the Nebraska route is re-examined, ClearView Energy Partners LLC analyst Kevin Book advised clients in a note yesterday. A similar decision by State in late 2011 paved the way for GOP insistence on a 60-day deadline for Obama to weigh in on the pipeline, which led to a presidential rejection in early 2012 and a resubmission of a new route by TransCanada.
"Whether or not State stops the [national interest determination] clock, agency and White House spokespeople have strenuously reiterated that neither the secretary of State nor the president will be hurried into making any decisions," Book wrote. "In short, 'Keystone Standard Time' seems poised to drag on a little longer ... it could potentially stretch beyond the November 4, 2014, midterm elections."
As the Nebraska drama played on, billionaire anti-KXL climate activist Tom Steyer hosted a half-dozen Democratic senators at his San Francisco home for a fundraiser last night that sent $400,000 to the party's upper-chamber campaign effort. Steyer announced plans Monday to spend $100 million or more on electing climate-friendly candidates this fall.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) remarks to the 70 attendees "focused on the importance of creating an offset to the Koch brothers," the energy magnates known for their lavish campaign spending in support of conservative candidates, according to a source at the Steyer fundraiser who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Vice President Al Gore also addressed the crowd, calling Steyer "Mr. Tipping Point" in the fight to bring climate change back to the top of the Democratic agenda, the source said, while Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) homed in on "how exposed the Republicans are for adopting and promoting a basic anti-science position."
Also in the crowd were Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), as well as Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who is running to replace retiring Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Peters is the only one of 10 Democratic candidates in the nation's most hotly contested Senate races to openly criticize KXL (Greenwire, Feb. 18).
Steyer himself, who co-hosted the fundraiser with donors Mark and Susie Tompkins Buell and Wade Randlett, spoke to his guests about new polling on KXL that his advisers will publicly release today. The survey focuses on the importance of the end use of KXL's emissions-heavy Canadian oil sands crude -- namely, whether it stays in the United States or is exported, in raw or refined form -- in terms of voter opinion about the pipeline.
Among the crowd of more than five dozen people dining on grass-fed beef and salmon at Steyer's home, according to the source in attendance, were League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski and former Sierra Club chief Carl Pope.