WASHINGTON (AP) — Embarking on a second term, President Barack Obama faces mounting pressure on a decision he had put off during his re-election campaign: whether to approve the $7 billion proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline between the U.S. and Canada.
On its surface, it's a choice between the promise of jobs and economic growth and environmental concerns. But it's also become a proxy for a much broader fight over American energy consumption and climate change, amplified by Superstorm Sandy and the conclusion of an election that was all about the economy.
Environmental activists and oil producers alike are looking to Obama's decision as a harbinger of what he'll do on climate and energy in the next four years. Both sides are holding out hope that, freed from the political constraints of re-election, the president will side with them on this and countless related issues down the road.
"The broader climate movement is absolutely looking at this administration's Keystone XL decision as a really significant decision to signal that dirty fuels are not acceptable in the U.S.," said Danielle Droitsch, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Once content with delays that have so far kept the pipeline from moving forward at full speed, opponents of Keystone XL have launched protests in recent weeks at the White House and in Texas urging Obama to nix the project outright. Meanwhile, support for the pipeline appears to be picking up steam on Capitol Hill.
But Obama has shown little urgency about the pipeline, which would carry crude oil about 1,700 miles from western Canada to Texas Gulf Coast refineries. The pipeline requires State Department approval because it crosses an international boundary.
The pipeline became an issue in the campaign, and Obama put it on hold while a plan was worked out to avoid routing it through Nebraska's environmentally sensitive Sandhills region. TransCanada, the company applying to build it, revised the route, but that caused the lengthy environmental review process to start over. In the meantime, the company split the project into two parts, starting construction in August on a southern segment between Oklahoma and Texas even as it waits for approval for the northern segment that crosses the Canadian border.
Although the lower leg didn't require Obama's sign-off, he gave it his blessing in March anyway, irking environmental activists who see the pipeline as a slap to efforts to reduce oil consumption and fend off climate change.
"At a time when we are desperately trying to bend the emissions curve downwards, it is wrong to open up a new source of energy that is more carbon intensive and makes the problem worse," wrote former Vice President Al Gore, now a climate activist, in an email.
Still, in an otherwise highly polarized political climate, access to affordable energy has become a rare issue with bipartisan appeal.
"It's just a no-brainer," Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., told The Associated Press. "Canada is going to export this oil. It's either going to come to the U.S. or it's going to go to Russia or China. Even Democrats that aren't really excited about oil and gas development generally can figure that out."