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Hillary dodges hard choices on Keystone pipeline

Hillary Clinton recused herself from discussing the merits of Keystone XL while on a book tour in Canada.
An activist holds up a sign outside the State Department during a protest of the Keystone XL pipeline on March 7, 2014 in Washington.
An activist holds up a sign outside the State Department during a protest of the Keystone XL pipeline on March 7, 2014 in Washington.

The big question hanging over U.S.-Canada relations at the moment is the proposed Keystone XL pipeline extension, which could transport up to 830,000 barrels a day of tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to the United States if it were approved. Yet that's precisely the question which rumored 2016 presidential contender Hillary Clinton seemed most determined to avoid during her book tour through America's neighbor to the north.

During a Q&A with Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail last week, Clinton recused herself from discussing the pipeline because of her prior involvement in its approval process.

"I can’t really comment at great length because I had responsibility for it and it’s been passed on and it wouldn’t be appropriate, but I hope that Canadians appreciate that the United States government – the Obama administration – is trying to get it right," she said. During a Tuesday appearance in Edmonton she once again avoided discussing the merits of the project, saying only that it shouldn't entirely define America's talks with Canada regarding energy policy.

In order to move forward, the pipeline project needs approval from the U.S. State Department. Clinton was Secretary of State when the matter was originally put before the department, but repeated delays have kept the project's future very much up in the air. The most recent delay came in April 2014, after nearly six years of public debate and deliberation, when the Obama administration announced that no decision would be forthcoming until after the November midterms.

In October 2010, when Clinton was still secretary of state, she said that the administration was "inclined" to approve the pipeline extension. But circumstances have changed dramatically since then. For the past four years, the green movement has been waging an all-out war on the proposal, making it a key flashpoint in the political battle over America's energy future. And Clinton has gone from sitting government official to probable 2016 presidential frontrunner, leaving her in a position where it would be imprudent to alienate either the environment-friendly Democratic activist base or the deep-pocketed energy lobby.

"I'm not surprised that Hillary Clinton is dodging 'hard questions' on Keystone XL before President Obama makes his decision, but she's going to have to clarify her position eventually," said Jamie Henn, communications director of the anti-Keystone group 350 Action over email. "For young people, progressives, and environmentalists, Keystone XL has become the key test of a politician's seriousness about addressing the climate crisis. If Obama approves Keystone XL and Hillary stays mum, it would turn a lot of people away from her potential candidacy. But if the President rejects the pipeline, and Hillary approves of the decision, it could electrify those same constituencies. I wouldn't be surprised if right now the Clinton camp is pushing the White House to kill Keystone XL. It's the right move for the climate and a candidacy."