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The failure of the Senate earlier this month to consider an energy bill likely puts to rest, at least for this year, the prospect of Congressional action mandating approval the Keystone XL pipeline. But President Barack Obama should hardly feel he’s dodged a bullet. Repeated delays in making a decision on Keystone have freshened criticism from both left and right that the president is indecisive to a fault.
At this point it seems clear, however, that Obama will be compelled by political expediency to delay the Keystone decision still further, until after the mid-term elections. By postponing the decision he can avoid suppressing desperately needed November turnout from his liberal base, parts of which have threatened to stay home if he approves the pipeline. Equally, denying the Keystone permit ahead of the mid-terms would further imperil at least five Senate seats — Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana and North Carolina — held by endangered moderate Democrats, all running in states Republican nominee Mitt Romney won in 2012. These seats are the key to Democratic hopes of keeping a slim majority in the Senate.
But, now that the Keystone decision will probably come after the mid-terms, Obama is almost certain to approve the pipeline. Why? In a word: Hillary.
If President Obama denies the popular pipeline, which polls consistently show Americans support by more than a two to one margin, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would be saddled with a political nightmare. In the Democratic primary, she would come under withering pressure from big money liberal funders and left of center primary voters to come out against the project, and the issue would also certainly become a rallying cry of candidates to her left, whether Elizabeth Warren or any other. At the same time, if Mrs. Clinton caved to this pressure and signaled she would nix Keystone, she would be on the wrong side of general election voters, handing the Republicans a powerful symbolic issue for November.
If the President approves the Keystone permit after the mid-terms, though, the issue will be effectively defused. The GOP would lose a potent political weapon. Clinton could indicate, that while she has some issues with the pipeline, the matter is moot, since the permit has already been granted. She can also point to two State Department studies that have shown the pipeline is unlikely to markedly increase greenhouse gas emissions, since Canadian oil sands are highly profitably and will be developed in any event. In short, she can finesse the issue far more easily post-approval than post-rejection.
More broadly, the White House should realize that the Keystone XL decision actually affords the president a golden opportunity to educate the American people about what really matters regarding climate change policy, and what doesn’t.
As recent analysis by Michael Levi at the Council on Foreign Relations and other centrist experts has found, stopping Keystone is hardly the key to climate protection. There are many issues, both at home and abroad, that are far more important, and which are now being overshadowed by Keystone.