Obama advisers fret over pipeline's political risks

WASHINGTON Thu Nov 3, 2011 2:57pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Reeling from months of protests, President Barack Obama's advisers are worried that administration approval for a planned oil pipeline from Canada could cost him political support from Democrats in 2012.

Senior officials at the White House and Obama's Chicago campaign headquarters have fielded complaints from supporters who are unhappy about TransCanada Corp's plan to build a massive pipeline to transport crude from Alberta to Texas, sources familiar with the situation said.

The concerns could contribute to a delay in the approval process for the Keystone XL pipeline just as the 2012 presidential campaign heats up.

The State Department, which is overseeing the process, said this week a delay from its end-of-year target was possible.

Obama's re-election plans depend partially on his ability to energize his base of supporters, many of whom are disillusioned with his progress in fighting climate change and attaining other environmental goals.

The pipeline has galvanized that discontent, leading to protests in Washington and across the country. More than 6,000 opponents have signed up to form a human ring around the White House on Sunday in what they hope will be a dramatic signal to keep the pressure on Obama, according to environmental groups.

Obama advisers fear that a decision in favor of the project could dampen enthusiasm among volunteers needed for door-to-door campaigning in battleground states that are critical to Obama's re-election.

"The potential that it's actually going to deflate their bodies on the ground in key states... is kind of a new concern," said one environmental advocate close to the administration.

Some administration policy advisers expect the pipeline will be approved because of the energy security and jobs it would create, according to one source who met with two White House staffers about the subject recently.

"Everything I heard suggests there's no change in the sentiment that this will go forward," the source said.

Another source, who said he discussed the issue with senior officials from Obama's 2012 campaign operation, said a delay in the decision seemed increasingly likely.


Obama has indicated he will make the final call. In a television interview on Tuesday, he outlined the economic and health criteria he would consider when the State Department's recommendations come his way.

White House spokesman Jay Carney, who has emphasized State's lead role, played down Obama's comments on Wednesday, but said the final decision would represent his views.

Taking responsibility for the decision will land Obama with political consequences, regardless of which way it goes.

Saying yes would hurt him with environmentalists and the young voters who helped propel him to power in 2008.

Saying no would mean turning down a chance to substantially increase oil imports from a friendly neighbor and halt a project proponents say would create thousands of jobs.

Obama's re-election hopes depend on his ability to bring down high unemployment and jump-start the U.S. economy.

"Politically it's his base versus the much broader constituency that's more focused on jobs and the economy, and that pretty much puts him on the horns of a dilemma," said Craig Pirrong, a professor and a director for the Global Energy Management Institute at the University of Houston.

Donors have complained about the issue to the campaign, and officials there passed on the feedback to the White House, one source said, adding that Obama's chief of staff Bill Daley had also fielded complaints.

As concerns mount, the administration is doing its best to highlight its green accomplishments, particularly its success in raising fuel economy standards for automobiles.

But environmentalists are worried about the carbon-spewing process of extracting oil from tar sands, the process used in Alberta, and charge that a decision in favor of the project would violate Obama's commitment to fighting climate change.


Carol Browner, who was Obama's top climate change adviser and a chief architect of his energy policy until earlier this year, has come out against the project.

"Until we do have a climate policy, the idea that we should be supportive of a pipeline that will increase greenhouse gas emissions is deeply troubling," Browner told an energy forum on Thursday.

Ben LaBolt, Obama's campaign spokesman, said Obama's record spoke for itself.

"The president has done more to wean us off of foreign oil and transition the nation to a clean energy economy than any other," he said. "When Americans compare the president's record promoting clean energy and America's energy security to those of the leading Republican candidates, who don't even believe that climate change is an issue that we need to address and would cede the clean energy market to China, there will be no question about who will continue our progress."

Mark Lewis, a partner at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP in Washington and a specialist in pipeline law, said the tar sands would be developed in any case, whether the oil comes to the United States or not.

"Politically if the pipeline project is approved Obama will take heat from the environmentalists but not approving it won't stop the oil from getting produced so it seems like a somewhat hollow victory, even for the environmentalists," he said.

"I'm not sure a delay helps (Obama) at all because ultimately he has to make a decision. I don't think you can delay this until after the election, but by that point a delay kills the project because the markets will look for an alternative."

(Additional reporting by Christopher Doering and Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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Comments (2)
Most of the oil from the pipeline will be exported and very few jobs will be created. The risk of contamination of the aquifer that supplies drinking water to several states, as well as native American reservations, is very real and impossible to remedy.
Tar sands oil is an extremely dirty and inefficient way to provide energy, causing huge emissions of CO2 during its production, then more still when it is used.
On the one hand the oil companies will make millions of dollars, with minimal benefit to the people, and any benefits in the way of a handful of jobs will be massively outweighed by the huge impact on the environment. It is likely to be ‘game over’ as far as climate change is concerned, and if the aquifer is polluted as well, as is likely, then millions of people will not have clean drinking water.
Only an idiot who cares more about oil company profits than the environment and the people would approve this crazy idea. George Bush would, but Obama?? Let’s hope he has the balls to do what’s right!!

Nov 03, 2011 5:52pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
This is a horrible pipeline planned to pump tar sands bitumen, NOT CRUDE OIL.

The tar sands bitumen is recovered through strip mining the Boreal forests in Alberta, Canada – an area the size of Florida. This is a huge environmental and health disaster currently taking place in Canada.

In addition to the environmental and health issues in Canada, the proposed pipeline will endanger farms, wildlife and precious water aquifers–including the Ogallala Aquifer, the US’ main source of freshwater for America’s heartland.

Here are a few facts about bitumen and the proposed pipeline:
1. Bitumen is so thick that it cannot flow as a liquid, so it has to be diluted with other chemicals in order to force it through a pipeline – even a 3 foot pipeline such as the Keystone pipeline.
2. The diluted bitumen, also called DilBit, is still 40 times thicker than conventional crude oil.
3. In order to flow through a 3 foot diameter pipeline, the DilBit has to be pumped at very high pressure (1440 psi) and high temperature (175 F). This is compared to 600 psi and ambient temperatures for crude oil pipelines.
4. Just for comparison, 1080 psi will sink an American Seawolf Class nuclear submarine. Think of what 1440 psi is doing to the pipeline – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
5. DilBit is also much more corrosive than conventional crude oil. DilBit contains 15 to 20 times higher acid concentrations than conventional crudes.
6. DilBit also contains 5 to 10 times more sulfur as conventional crudes. This can lead to increased weakening and embrittlement of pipelines.
7. Higher temperatures thin the DilBit and increase its speed through the pipeline, but they also increase the speed at which acids and other chemicals corrode the pipeline.
8. Internal corrosion has caused more than sixteen times as many spills in the Alberta tar sands pipeline systems as for U.S. conventional pipeline systems.

Nov 04, 2011 2:40pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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