By Matthew Daly
WASHINGTON — Eleven Senate Democrats, including six who face contested races this year, are urging President Barack Obama to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline by the end of May.
The five-year review of the Canada-to-Texas pipeline has been “exhaustive in its time, breadth and scope” and has taken longer than reasonably justified, the senators wrote to the president Thursday.
Brownsville, Wis.-based Michels Corp. is overseeing construction of the pipeline from Cushing, Okla., to about Diboll, Texas.
Full approval of the pipeline is needed to ensure pipeline operator TransCanada does not miss another construction season, according to the letter from the senators.
But politics likely is a larger factor. Six of the Democrats who signed the letter face challenges this year: Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, John Walsh of Montana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Warner of Virginia.
Democratic efforts to keep control of the Senate could hinge on those races. All but North Carolina are significant energy-producing states. Obama lost all but Virginia in 2012.
The Keystone XL pipeline has emerged as an election-year dilemma for Democrats.
Wealthy party donors are backing candidates who oppose the project, a high-profile symbol of the political debate over climate change. But some of the party’s most vulnerable incumbents are pipeline boosters, including the six who signed the letter.
The Republican-controlled House has voted several times to approve the pipeline, which has support from a majority of senators. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., blocked a vote last week on a Republican proposal that would have allowed construction of the pipeline and made numerous changes in the nation’s health care law. GOP lawmakers say all of the proposals would help create jobs.
Polls show most Americans support the pipeline. Sixty-five percent of those responding to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll backed the project, while 22 percent opposed it.
Several former Obama administration officials, including ex-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and former national security adviser James Jones, have called on Obama to approve the pipeline. Jones told Congress last month that approval would send Russian President Vladimir Putin a message that “international bullies” can’t use energy security as a weapon.
The pipeline also is supported by labor unions eager for the jobs it would create, as well as a range of business groups and virtually all congressional Republicans.
Environmental groups and some top Democratic donors oppose the pipeline, saying it would carry “dirty oil” that contributes to global warming. They also worry about possible spills.
Tom Steyer, a billionaire environmentalist, has vowed to spend $100 million —$50 million of his own money and $50 million from other donors — to make climate change a top-tier issue in the 2014 elections. Opposition to Keystone XL is a significant part of that effort.
At least one environmental group committed Thursday to trying to hold Senate Democrats “accountable” if the pipeline is approved. The group, 350 Action, has staged protests across the country at events where Obama was speaking and could extend that to Democratic campaign events in states where lawmakers have backed the pipeline.
“We will definitely be out there protesting,” said Jamie Henn, a spokesman for the group, which is associated with activist Bill McKibben.
Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Donnelly of Indiana also signed the letter urging approval of the pipeline.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the review of the pipeline “needs to run its appropriate course without interference from the White House or Congress.”
The State Department is reviewing the project “and when there’s a decision to be announced, it will be announced,” Carney said.
The State Department has authority over the project because it crosses a U.S. border.Follow @MatthewDalyWDC