Environmentalists amassed in the capital this week to protest Keystone XL are eyeing one of the GOP's rising stars, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, for a possible change of heart on the project after she joined Democrats in calling for a full Obama administration review of another Canadian oil sands crude pipeline running through her home state.
Alongside fellow New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) and the Granite State's two Democratic House members, Ayotte on Friday urged the State Department to conduct "a comprehensive review" of any attempt by the owners of the Portland Montreal Pipe Line to reverse its flow in order to carry heavy Canadian crude through New England to East Coast ports. The prospect of up to 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil sands crude flowing through the aging Portland line, which now runs from Maine to Quebec, took on new urgency last month after Canadian regulators OKed the reversal of a line that connects it to Ontario.
While Ayotte's request might appear little more than an alignment with home-state concerns about the Portland line, which carried its first oil before World War II, the sight of a potential GOP vice presidential nominee and KXL supporter backing the administration's involvement in oil sands infrastructure came as a welcome surprise to climate activists.
"Things get real when they're in your own back yard," 350.org communications director Jamie Henn said via email of Ayotte's concerns about Canadian crude running through New Hampshire. "It sounds like it's time for Senator Ayotte to change her stance on Keystone XL, as well. It would be mighty hypocritical to say tar sands are a risk for New Hampshire but a blessing for Nebraska."
Ayotte is not the only New England Republican and KXL supporter to call for State Department review of any future Portland pipeline reversal. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told Greenwire last month that she would want the Obama administration to look into the issue, though she stopped short of calling for the full-scale presidential permit review that the New Hampshire delegation endorsed this week (E&E Daily, Mar. 6).
"Like the Native Americans, ranchers and farmers in D.C. this week protesting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, Senator Ayotte is apparently learning what it's like to have this dirty tar sands threatening her community," David Turnbull, campaigns director at the green group Oil Change International, said today via email.
"Perhaps now that she is aware of these threats, Senator Ayotte will support the communities demanding the same thorough process for communities along the Keystone XL route as she is for her constituents in New Hampshire."
KXL would ship upward of 700,000 bpd of oil sands crude to the Gulf Coast if approved -- more than double the amount of fuel that could be carried by a Portland reversal that the New Hampshire delegation warned would "pose risks to our constituents' health, the environment and wildlife."
Asked for comment on the senator's approaches to the two oil sands crude projects, Ayotte spokeswoman Liz Johnson emphasized the length of the State Department's KXL evaluation, which began in 2008, in calling for an end to the deliberations on the larger pipeline.
"Despite the Keystone project having cleared environmental reviews, the administration continues to drag its feet with unnecessary and unreasonable delays -- putting politics above American jobs when it should approve Keystone immediately," Johnson said via email. "Senator Ayotte supports a thorough and expeditious review of the Portland-Montreal Pipeline should a change in direction or content be proposed."
Jim Murphy, the Vermont-based senior counsel at the National Wildlife Federation, said via email that "we thank Sen. Ayotte for recognizing the value of careful review to protect our wildlife and communities from dangerous, climate-disrupting tar sands pipelines. ... Sen. Ayotte's leadership on this issue is critically needed and we hope it will carry over to other pipelines that pose serious climate and environmental risks as well."
KXL, the pipeline driving a national environmentalist campaign against oil sands crude, drew 61 percent support from likely voters in a poll released today by Rasmussen Reports. The telephone-based poll of 1,000 likely voters was conducted April 21-22 and had a 3-point margin of error. It arrived as a demonstration by American Indians and Plains-state ranchers against the $5.4 billion pipeline entered its second day on the National Mall following an opening ceremony conducted by dozens of riders on horseback (Greenwire, Apr. 22).