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Keystone: Dead Pipeline Lives On As Election-Year Issue

Now that President Obama has made his decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, an obvious question is what will it mean for the 2012 presidential election?

Obviously, no one really knows the answer to that though that won't stop weeks if not months of speculation.

The key to Keystone is, which side will have the most success in framing its case to enough voters for it to make a difference?

The president is clearly hoping he can persuade voters that Republicans made him do it, that they gave him no choice by linking a speedy decision by him on the pipeline to their last-minute agreement in December to extend the payroll tax holiday.

OBAMA: "This announcement is not a judgment on the merits of the pipeline, but the arbitrary nature of a deadline that prevented the State Department from gathering the information necessary to approve the project and protect the American people. I'm disappointed that Republicans in Congress forced this decision, but it does not change my Administration's commitment to American-made energy that creates jobs and reduces our dependence on oil..."

Obama is banking on persuading enough voters that his desire to protect a particularly environmentally sensitive part of Nebraska trumps building the pipeline along a route that alarmed environmentalists and even some Nebraska Republicans.

Obama may have reason for optimism since he clearly has more political capital to work with at this point than Congress. According to Gallup, the president's approval rating stands at about 45 percent while Congress is at 11 percent.

Also, Obama had already determined last year that he was going to put off a decision on the Keystone pipeline until after the election so that a different, more environmentally friendly route for the pipeline could be considered.

He only changed his position as part of the deal to get the payroll tax holiday extended. So his decision Wednesday didn't come as a surprise.

For their part, Republicans on the presidential campaign trail and in Congress are hoping voters filled with economic anxieties will draw a straight line between the pipeline project and jobs.

That was evident in virtually every response to Obama's decision.

From Mitt Romney, the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination:

President Obama's decision to reject the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline is as shocking as it is revealing. It shows a President who once again has put politics ahead of sound policy... By declaring that the Keystone pipeline is not in the 'national interest,' the President demonstrates a lack of seriousness about bringing down unemployment, restoring economic growth, and achieving energy independence. He seems to have confused the national interest with his own interest in pleasing the environmentalists in his political base."

And from Speaker John Boehner (R-OH):

"President Obama is destroying tens of thousands of American jobs and shipping American energy security to the Chinese. There's really – there's no other way to put it: the President is selling out American jobs for politics.

"The President was given the authority to block this project only – and only – if he believes it's not in the national interest of the United States... Is it not in the national interest to get energy resources from an ally like Canada as opposed to some countries in the Middle East?

"The President has said he'll do anything that he can to create jobs. Today that promise was broken. The president expedited the approval of the Solyndra loan project, but won't approve a project that's been under review for over three years.

So the lines are drawn over the pipeline, with politicians on either side accusing each other of practicing politics. And, of course, they all are.

The president does have one argument he can make that could help him rebut charges that it's all about politics. There is support in organized labor, a key Obama ally, for the project though the support isn't unanimous.

Still, just what impact Obama's Keystone decision will have remains to be seen. It's a topic we'll likely be hearing a lot about in TV ads funded by Republican superPACs. Obama may have rejected the project but the pipeline lives, at least as an issue, from now all the way to November.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.