ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE
Barack Obama has seen protesters from his motorcade for years: McCain and Romney campaign supporters, health care reform opponents and all manner of Tea Party acolytes. But when he left Argonne National Laboratory in a cold rain outside Chicago on Friday, there was another breed altogether: environmentalists bearing bright hand-painted signs with messages like, “No XL Pipeline.”
In a matter of months, the Obama Administration will have to decide whether to permit the Keystone XL pipeline, a 2,000 mile conduit for Canadian oil seeking ports on the Gulf of Mexico. Environmentalists have made stopping the pipeline their number one priority, saying it will encourage the development of a particularly dirty type of oil at a time when America should be leading the world in reducing greenhouse gases.
White House aides are clearly uncomfortable with the current campaign from their left, a fact that quickly became clear on the flight to Chicago. “Thousands of miles of pipeline have been built since President Obama took office, and that hasn’t had a measurable impact on climate change,” said Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, on board Air Force One. “The truth is what we need to do is take an all of the above approach.”
When I asked if he was saying that further green energy investment was more important to fighting climate change than stopping the new pipeline, he did not hesitate. “There is no question about that,” he said.
White House officials say no final decision has been made about the fate of the pipeline, but for environmentalists reading the tea leaves, such rhetoric is not a positive sign. Repeatedly in recent weeks, Obama’s aides have tried to distance the President from the process. “When there is a decision that is ready to be announced by the State Department, they will go ahead and make that announcement,” said Earnest. Notably, when Obama rejected a previous plan for the pipeline during the election year, he said his concern was focused only on the rushed permit process. “This announcement is not a judgement on the merits of the pipeline,” the President said in a statement at the time.
For senior administration officials, the protests over the pipeline have distracted from the more important fights, and recent accomplishments, in the fight to reduce carbon pollution, which the president has again elevated to a priority since winning the election. At the Argonne National Laboratory, Obama praised recent government funded research to develop electric cars, and announced plans for a new $2 billion, 10-year National Energy Trust, which would provide new research funding for electric and low-emissions vehicles.
He also boasted of a recent Environmental Protection Agency study that showed significant increases in fuel economy of U.S. cars, in part because of new standards instituted during Obama’s first term. After the speech, Obama aides sent reporters an email titled “How We Shift America Off Oil” that did not mention the pipeline, but rather pointed to the importance of new funding for energy research that would reduce American dependence on fossil fuels.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans have also made the Keystone XL pipeline a cause celeb. As the President flex to Chicago, Michigan Republican Congressman Ted Upton introduced a bill Friday that would give Congress the power to approve the pipeline directly, though its passage is far from certain in the Senate. Congressional Republicans raised the topic of the pipeline on Wednesday in a meeting with Obama. Reports from the room, which have been confirmed by the White House, described Obama as neither embracing nor rejecting the project.