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Hillary Clinton (finally) comes out against Keystone pipeline

After spending more than two years awkwardly avoiding the issue, the Democratic presidential's long Keystone XL nightmare is over.
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets supporters after speaking to a grassroots organizing meeting at the Louisiana Leadership Institute in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, September 21, 2015. (Photo by Lee Celano/Reuters)
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets supporters after speaking to a grassroots organizing meeting at the Louisiana Leadership Institute in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, September 21, 2015.

After spending more than two years twisting herself in rhetorical pretzels to avoid giving a straight answer on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, Hillary Clinton’s long nightmare is finally over.

Clinton made good on the promise she delivered last week to finally take a public position on the pipeline “soon, ”on  whose fate the Obama administration has dragged its feet deciding.

“I oppose it,” Clinton said in response to a question on the pipeline while campaigning in Iowa Tuesday. “I oppose it because I don’t think, I don’t think it’s in the best interest of what we need to do to combat climate change.”

Clinton said the pipeline was “a distraction for the work we have to do to combat climate change” and said we need to “move beyond” the issue. “I thought this would be decided by now. And therefore, I could tell you whether I agreed or I disagreed. But it hasn’t been decided, and I feel now I’ve got a responsibility to you and other voters who ask me about this,” she added.

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Few issues have dogged Clinton so consistently for so long. While questions about Benghazi or the Clinton Foundation or her paid speeches have swelled and dissipated over time, Keystone has always been there, causing nuisances for Clinton since almost immediately after she stepped down as secretary of state in early 2013.

Because the pipeline crosses an international boundary, to carry oil from Canada’s tar sands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast, the State Department had the final say on the project.

As secretary of state, Clinton was seen as initially favoring construction of the pipeline. “[W]e are inclined to do so,” Clinton said during a 2010 speaking engagement when asked about approving new tar sands pipelines. “We're either going to be dependent on dirty oil from the Gulf or dirty oil from Canada.”

But Clinton left government with the pipeline in limbo and she continued to face questions on it, especially on visits to Canada. But refused to answer every time, citing her earlier role in the process.“You won’t get me to talk about Keystone,” Clinton said in Winnipeg in January. “Because I have steadily made clear that I’m not going to express an opinion.”

Clinton’s 2014 memoir devoted more than 600 pages to the “Hard Choices” she made a secretary of state, but not a single one mentions the pipeline.

Clinton’s departure from the State Department coincided with the rise of Keystone as a political issue, as environmentalists zeroed in on the pipeline as a litmus test and focus of organizing efforts.

Activists and green-minded celebrities got themselves arrested in droves outside the White House, staged protests multiple cities, and interrupted politicians speeches as they pressured President Obama -- and potential future president Clinton -- oppose the pipeline.

As time went on without a decision the pipeline, things became increasingly awkward for Clinton.

On a single day in December, she helped raise money for people on both sides of the issue. One minute she was boosting former Sen. Mary Landrieu, who was pushing Obama to approve the pipeline in a last-ditch effort to in a runoff election in Louisiana. The next minute, Clinton was being hailed at fundraising dinner for anti-Keystone League of Conservative Voters.

“If it’s undecided when I become president, I will answer your question,” Clinton said in July of this year. “This is President Obama’s decision and I’m not going to second-guess him.”

Throughout, she has been knocked by left and right. Her Democratic rivals Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, who both oppose the pipeline, said they were baffled Clinton could not take a position. Republicans, meanwhile, said her silence on the issue showed Clinton to be untrustworthy, poll-driven, and obfuscatory.

But last week, Clinton finally seemed to reach a breaking point. “I have been waiting for the administration to make a decision. I thought I owed them that,” Clinton said during a townhall meeting in New Hampshire. “I can’t wait too much longer. I am putting the White House on notice. I am going to tell you what I think soon.”

The next day, across the border in Portland, Maine, Clinton looked a bit exasperated when anti-Keystone protesters interrupted her speech there. “Soon,” she promised again.

Sanders and O'Malley wasted no time respond, making it clear they were not ready to let Clinton off the hook. "On issue after issue--marriage equality, drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, children fleeing violence in Central America, the Syrian refugee crisis, and now the Keystone Pipeline, Secretary Clinton has followed -- not forged -- public opinion," O'Malley said in a statement.

Sanders, for his part, said, "I am glad that Secretary Clinton finally has made a decision and I welcome her opposition to the pipeline." He noted that he has opposed the pipeline "from the beginning."