WASHINGTON — As a possible government shutdown looms, environmental activists who oppose construction of the Keystone XL pipeline say they are increasingly alarmed that the project might become a bargaining chip in last-minute negotiations between Republicans and President Barack Obama to avert a fiscal crisis.
If built, the 1,700-mile long pipeline would carry millions of gallons of crude oil from Alberta, Canada, to U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast. Because it crosses an international border, the pipeline requires approval by Obama's administration after a State Department review. Obama has said he would not make a decision until the review was complete.
But Republicans who support the pipeline have signaled that they intend to demand approval of a permit for its construction in exchange for their willingness to support Obama and raise the nation's debt ceiling next month.
“We feel like this is our only option,” said Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., a leading pipeline supporter. Terry said Republicans were working to draft legislative language that would “deem” the pipeline to be approved if an agreement is reached to raise the debt ceiling. The pipeline could become an issue even earlier as lawmakers wrangle to avoid a shutdown by Oct. 1.
“Even though this threat is patently absurd, we are of course taking it seriously,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, a senior vice president at the League of Conservation Voters, which opposes the pipeline. She said Republicans “feel like now is their opportunity on a must-pass bill. It's a really cynical, disturbing view of how government should function.”
Environmentalists say they are cautiously optimistic that Obama will not yield to pressure from pipeline supporters in Congress, including some Democrats. But Obama has left his views on the pipeline murky, refusing to say whether he plans to approve it or not. And with the stakes of a shutdown or a debt default so high, opponents of the pipeline remain on edge.
“Our entire campaign has been premised that the president will make good on his promises and rhetoric on climate change,” said Dan Kessler, a spokesman for 350.org, a group that opposes the pipeline. “We don't expect him to cede any of that control to crazy Republicans.”
But Kessler added: “This is going to be another test of his leadership and commitment.”
Obama has said flatly that he will not negotiate with Republicans about what he sees as the imperative to raise the debt ceiling and avoid a potentially catastrophic default on America's obligations. But White House officials say they are willing to have discussions about the budget to avoid a government shutdown — although they say the pipeline should not be part of those talks.