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The last, best chance to kill the Keystone pipeline

If Democrats lose the Senate, environmentalists have one last chance for a hail mary to kill the pipeline: "We’re going to be a major headache."
Protestors urge President Obama to reject the Keystone KXL Pipeline in Santa Monica, Calif. on Feb. 3, 2014. (Photo by Laura Kleinhenz/Redux)
Protestors urge President Obama to reject the Keystone KXL Pipeline in Santa Monica, Calif. on Feb. 3, 2014.

After six years of administrative delays and internecine fighting, environmentalists’ last best chance to kill the Keystone XL could come during a 60 day window after next month’s election and before the new Congress gets sworn in.

The Obama administration controls the approval process for now, but if Republicans win control of the Senate, as expected, they plan to fast track legislation to greenlight the controversial pipeline. That gives opponents one more chance to try to convince the president to reject the pipeline before the landscapes shifts against them, which could happen if Republicans control both chambers of Congress come January.

While environmentalists are still hoping for a good outcome on Election Day, they’re planning for the worst.

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In meetings around Washington and in regular conference calls between groups that work together to stop the extraction of dirty oil from Canada’s tar sands, environmentalists are preparing to once again push the White House on this issue if Democrats lose on Nov. 4.

“We’re going to be a major headache,” reads an internal post-election planning memo from the environmental group obtained by msnbc. “We’re ready for a fight, and the last thing President Obama and Democrats need is a rebellion from the left.”

The group has led the fight against the pipeline with aggressive direct-action campaigns, including protests outside the White House in which hundreds of activists volunteered to get arrested.

While post-election details have not yet been settled, the anti-Keystone activists group plan to conduct some kind of demonstration, likely at the White House, during the lame duck session of Congress.

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The goal is to put “Keystone XL back on the front burner,” according to the memo, and to frame the pipeline as a legacy issue for a president who has only two years left in office and won’t face another election. With a gridlocked Congress, the White House has resigned itself to pushing its agenda via executive action, and Keystone is issue where the president can single-handedly have a major impact, the argument goes.

“It simply wouldn’t make sense for President Obama to make so much progress combating the climate crisis on the one hand and then approve this carbon bomb on the other,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, the senior vice president for government affairs at the deep-pocketed League of Conservation Voters. “We will continue to urge that he reject the pipeline as quickly as possible.”

The White House has largely ignored previous Keystone demonstrations, and enacted environmental executive actions on its own terms.

The pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast, has been mired in an administrative review process for the duration of the Obama presidency, despite a push from Republicans and even some Democrats to speed its approval.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and a “firewall” of 42 or 43 pro-environment Democrats — enough to sustain a filibuster — have so far been able to keep legislation on the pipeline safely away from the president’s desk, sparing him from directly making a difficult choice.

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But if Republicans take control of the Senate, Reid will have to hand over the gavel to Sen. Mitch McConnell, who has vowed to pass pro-Keystone legislation. "If we have a new majority next year, and a new majority leader, the Keystone pipeline will be voted on on the floor of the Senate, something the current majority has been avoiding for literally years,” he told reporters late last month.  

Many of the Democrats in tight elections this year already support the pipeline, and it’s possible the “firewall” could hold even if Republicans win the Senate. But environmentalists involved in the post-election planning acknowledge that the most likely outcome is that the “firewall” breaks and the GOP gains a filibuster-proof bloc in support of the pipeline next year.

That’s still not enough votes to override a presidential veto. But Republicans have said they might attach approval of the pipeline to unrelated but must-pass legislation, like a bill to fund the government, and then dare Obama to veto it.

With the House firmly in Republican hands, there would be nothing stopping the bill from reaching Obama’s desk. Then he would have the impossible decision of vetoing an important bill in order to delay Keystone, or swallowing the pipeline with whatever underlying legislation it’s attached to.

"Keystone XL is and always will be the president's decision."'

"We'll be able to pick the [legislative] vehicle, and we'll have the 60 votes. We'll just attach it and pass it," Republican Sen. John Hoeven, who sits on the Energy Committee, told Reuters. "If we put it on his desk, the broad support nationally for the Keystone pipeline, as well as the pressure he will get from the unions, will provide significant pressure on the president.”

Polls show voters favor the pipeline. And some labor unions, including AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, support Keystone for the modest number of union jobs it would create.

If Obama were to reject the pipeline, Republicans would almost certainly accuse the president of usurping his authority to kill a popular project.

But Karthik Ganapathy of thinks Obama doesn’t have to worry about alienating moderate voters on this issue. “The only voters who really care about Keystone are the ones who oppose it. Voters in swing states won’t sway on a Keystone approval — Democrats stand to gain nothing, and only risk betraying their base,” he said.

Almost a dozen Democrats, mostly from red states, are on record supporting the project. Sen. Mary Landrieu, the Louisiana Democrat who chairs the Energy Committee and is up for reelection this year, passed a bill through her committee this summer to build the pipeline. But Reid never brought it to the Senate floor for a full vote.

Obama has punted on the pipeline several times, most recently this spring, to allow a legal challenge in Nebraska to work its way through the courts. The White House says they won’t support any attempt to circumvent the proper approval process — and that would presumably include a premature rejection on Obama's part.

Despite the risk in relying on a presidential veto to stop the pipeline in a GOP-controlled Seante, environmentalists say the decision is Obama’s alone.

“I don’t see the lame duck as a make-or-break moment,” said Elijah Zarlin who runs the Keystone campaign for the progressive group CREDO. “Keystone XL is and always will be the president's decision. Even Republican attempts to force a decision or strip his authority must receive his final say — either a signature or veto.”

And they have precedent for hope: After a showdown in 2011, Republicans successfully got Obama to sign a must-pass bill that had a pro-Keystone legislation tucked into it. But the president simply rejected the pipeline’s permit and made its backers start again.

Still, while they might not say it on the record, environmentalists privately acknowledge that their already uphill fight will likely become more difficult in January.

Said one such environmentalist, who requested anonymity to speak more candidly: “For six years, we've kicked the can down the road. These six weeks are the best chance for the president to do right by the environment.”