WASHINGTON—To hard-core environmentalists, the Obama administration's upcoming decision on the fiercely debated Keystone XL oil sands pipeline is black and white. Say no to the Canada-to-Gulf Coast pipeline, they insist, or they won't support Obama's re-election bid.
But judging the president's performance through such a narrow prism could backfire and make these pipeline hardliners politically irrelevant, analysts say, especially when the economy is tanking.
"All you hear about now is jobs, jobs, jobs," Saint Louis University political science professor Ken Warren told InsideClimate News. "And this pipeline is going to be painted as a jobs creation issue. It doesn't matter how many jobs will actually be created. In politics, it's about perception. And you're going to get blasted for not allowing it to be built."
Obama came into office as genuinely pro-environment and promising progress, said Warren, a political analyst and pollster for more than three decades.
"Now the greens are putting the squeeze on him," Warren said, "and Obama is saying, 'I know, I know, I know but I can't do what you want me to do with this pipeline. Don't you understand?'"
Evidently not. Claiming it should be a simple decision for Obama, hard-core greens frame the issue like this. Approving the $7 billion project would open a spigot to unneeded dirty fuel and reward the president's bitterest Big Oil enemies, who are intent on limiting him to one term. Rejecting it, on the other hand, would defuse a "carbon bomb" and reignite the devotion of an increasingly demoralized environmental community that raised piles of money and rounded up disengaged voters to help elect him in 2008.
That black and white clarity blurs to a murky gray hue, however, for a president up for re-election in less than 13 months saddled with sagging approval ratings, an unemployment rate stubbornly stuck at 9.1 percent and a sluggish economy on the verge of slumping back into a recession.
Anti-pipeline forces say those woes are no excuse for Obama to back-pedal on his commitment to action on climate change.
"The president's core constituencies are saying enough is enough," said Damon Moglen, director of the climate and energy program at the advocacy group Friends of the Earth. "Again and again and again, we do not see the president standing up for the environment and public health. We will no longer retreat."
Polls show that most Americans support a clean and healthy environment, explained Warren. But when the economy sinks into the doldrums, environmental concerns become luxuries.
"Often, specialty groups are so very narrowly focused that they are not willing to see the broad picture or be sensitive to circumstances," he said. "They are not sophisticated enough to sense the political climate and the realities of the time.
"What can you possibly hope for environmentally during this terrible economy when the top priority is jobs?"
Jobs, Gasoline Prices Top Worry List
Warren's insights resonate with Ted Nordhaus, chairman and co-founder of the Oakland, Calif.-based Breakthrough Institute. The independent public policy think tank takes an innovation-centered approach to national and global energy and climate challenges.
"Like it or not, various environmental demands conflict with or are construed as being bad for the economy," Nordhaus said. "As much as Obama may be concerned about his environmental constituency, he obviously is concerned about doing anything that could be construed as hurting the economy."
In addition to jobs, he said, that list of worries includes a particularly incendiary one—gasoline prices. Rightly or wrongly, the motoring public will fume if Obama says no to the pipeline and then prices at the pump rise.
"The Obama administration is in a bit of retreat on energy policies," Nordhaus said. "The message from them right now is, 'Sorry we can’t go there with the pipeline right now.'"
He pointed to how the president and Energy Department are taking it on the chin from Republicans who are questioning the return on federal stimulus investments in green jobs and having a heyday with the investigation of a failed California-based solar panel manufacturer that received a $535 million government-backed loan.
Nordhaus finds it especially curious that conservationists have chosen to adopt TransCanada's proposed 1,702-mile Keystone XL pipeline as a symbol of Obama’s allegiance. One, he said, they haven't offered a credible alternative for weaning the country off fossil fuels, and two, Alberta's oil sands mines will be fully developed whether the diluted bitumen is shipped here or elsewhere.
By drawing a line in the sand over the pipeline, he said, environmental groups risk increasing the perception that they are a "paper tiger."
"I can't see it working out for them," Nordhaus said. "It's hard to see Obama doing what they want him to do because of larger issues with the economy.
"Prospects for Obama's re-election don’t look very good. Strategists can come up with all sorts of cockamamie ideas but macroeconomics are the biggest determinant in whether incumbents get re-elected. Obama will rise and fall with the economy."