As Congress returns this week to a new chapter in the Keystone XL drama, the GOP faces a choice over how hard to push electorally vulnerable Democrats into breaking from the unhurried White House on the controversial pipeline.
The release late Friday of the final environmental impact statement (EIS) on KXL, the $5.4 billion proposed on-ramp for 700,000-plus daily barrels of new oil sands crude imports, set off a new round of partisan jockeying over President Obama's vow to keep weighing the pipeline's climate impacts.
The State Department's EIS, billed by KXL backers as a final word on its emissions footprint, is but the latest step in the years-long review process in the eyes of the White House -- or just "one department with a study," as Obama Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told NBC's "Meet the Press" yesterday.
"Now we have other agencies, [U.S.] EPA and many others, who have an opportunity" to weigh in on the 1,179-mile KXL, McDonough added.
Indeed, a 2004 executive order that governs vetting of cross-border pipelines affords eight other Cabinet-level agencies, including EPA, the Energy Department and the Interior Department, 90 days to weigh in on the State conclusion that rejecting KXL would have no bearing on the rate of development in the carbon-rich Canadian oil sands.
But outside that 90-day time frame, the White House and State have reiterated that Secretary of State John Kerry has no deadline for completing his own broader national interest review that takes into account economic and geopolitical considerations related to KXL. It is this open-ended resolution of the pipeline's future that leaves some Republicans already questioning how soon to press their case for approval (E&ENews PM, Jan. 31).
"He's been very clear that he's going to insulate this process from politics -- Washington loves politics," McDonough said yesterday on NBC. Whether the White House is able to truly shield vulnerable Democrats such as Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, and Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor from the blowback of a longer KXL delay depends both on how hard the GOP decides to push and on how strongly green groups rally to defend Obama's right to finish the ill-defined review process.
A sign of potential Republican focus on KXL came during last week's House GOP retreat in Cambridge, Md., when House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) brought up the possibility of forcing a floor vote to greenlight the pipeline during the upcoming debt-limit debate, according to an aide who spoke candidly on condition of anonymity.
Ryan's influence within his party could help force KXL back to the top of the party's debt-hike agenda despite vows from vocal conservative backers that approving the pipeline alone would not be enough to win their vote on a bill considered must-pass by month's end (E&ENews PM, Jan. 28).
Meanwhile, environmentalists signaled over the weekend that they would redouble their fight against the project and portray the EIS as providing Obama with ample reason to kill the pipeline. Tom Steyer, the billionaire climate activist who has lambasted KXL through his self-funded political action committee, yesterday wrote to Kerry urging an internal investigation of reports that Canadian government and industry officials had received early notice of the EIS's release.
A coalition of major green groups, led by the Rainforest Action Network, have organized more than 190 vigils today to spotlight the emissions effects of the oil sands crude that KXL would carry and urge its denial.
In response to Friday's EIS, a trio of the Senate's most vulnerable Democrats this cycle sought to head off any GOP criticisms by calling on the Obama administration to move ahead with the pipeline.
Landrieu -- who faces three Republican challengers, including Rep. Bill Cassidy, thanks to the state's open primary system -- highlighted her support for the project in multiple statements Friday, calling herself an "early advocate and leader" for the pipeline.
"With 43,000 jobs and a more energy-independent America on the line, this new study underscores what has been said all along about Keystone XL Pipeline: it's time to build," Landrieu said in a statement.
She added: "If we wait any longer to approve this project, we risk losing it for good. The studies are complete and the country is ready. I urge the Administration to act swiftly and give final approval so we can put people to work in these good-paying jobs right away and our refineries in Louisiana and Texas can keep refining this energy from our friendly ally, Canada."
Landrieu's Pelican State seat is a top target for Republicans this cycle as the party looks to flip the six seats it needs to claim a majority in the Senate.
While Landrieu is an outspoken advocate for the state's oil and gas industry -- and could head the Energy and Natural Resources Committee later this year, should Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus's (D-Mont.) early resignation lead to a series of gavel changes -- Republicans have aimed to tie her to Obama, who remains unpopular in the state. The president took 41 percent in Louisiana in the 2012 election.
Begich, who received attention last week for asserting that he was "not really interested in campaigning" with Obama, likewise pressed the administration to move ahead with the pipeline.
"The administration must take these findings seriously and move this project forward," Begich said. "I will continue to demand the president approve this critical energy project while also reminding him that we cannot truly secure our energy future without developing Alaska's energy potential both in the Arctic Ocean and National Petroleum Reserve."
The remarks echo Begich's interview with CNN following the president's State of the Union address. Begich said that if the president visited Alaska, he would "drag him around" to demonstrate how federal policies negatively affect the state's oil and gas developments.
"I don't need him campaigning for me. I need him to change some of his policies," Begich said in the interview.
A trio of Republicans, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, former Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan, and failed 2010 GOP nominee and attorney Joe Miller, are competing for the right to face Begich in November.
Pryor, who faces a challenge from freshman Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), also called for the pipeline's immediate approval, stating: "We cannot afford to wait any longer."
Pryor is the only Democrat left in Arkansas' six-seat delegation, which had five Democrats as recently as 2010. The two-term senator has likewise sought to distance himself from the president, who took 37 percent of the vote there in the 2012 election.
Reporters Jennifer Yachnin and Nick Juliano contributed.
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.