Hillary Rodham Clinton
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton listens to questions during a campaign stop on July 28, 2015, in Nashua, N.H. Jim Cole—AP

Hillary Clinton Threads the Needle on Keystone Pipeline

Updated: Jul 29, 2015 12:47 PM ET

When an assertive New Hampshire voter asked about the Keystone Pipeline, he gave Hillary Clinton exactly two options.

“As president, would you sign a bill—yes or no, please—in favor of allowing the Keystone XL pipeline,” said the man in the audience at a town hall in Nashua on Tuesday.

Clinton declined to choose either. “This is President Obama’s decision,” she said, citing the White House’s ongoing review of the most controversial oil pipeline in recent years. “If it’s undecided when I become president, I will answer your question.”

Clinton has repeatedly refused this week to take a stand on the controversial Keystone pipeline, saying that she will not comment on a decision the White House still must make. It's a notable elision because many environmentalists have spent the last few years calling opposition to the pipeline a litmus test for seriousness about fighting climate change.

But despite her hedging, Clinton has won initial approval for her climate change plans from key figures in the environmental movement, including billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer, the Sierra Club and a variety of activists and politicians in the early primary states. Many activists expect President Obama to decide the issue in the coming months, which would make it a moot point in the 2016 race.

Clinton has seized on an ambivalence on the left over Keystone XL's importance in the 2016 presidential race.

“From our perspective, it’s not problematic,” Michael Brune, executive director the Sierra Club said in an interview of Clinton's refusal to take a position. “The decision on Keystone will be made long before the election. For the 2016 presidential candidates, their stance on Keystone is only symbolic.”

Among environmental groups, stopping the Keystone pipeline has been a major symbol of the fight to slow fossil fuel extraction. But the pipeline's importance has faded recently as the Obama administration has set strict regulations on coal-fired power plants and increased fuel standards on cars and trucks. While they still hope to stop Keystone, climate activists now are more likely to talk about the need for the next president to rapidly expand renewable energy, put a moratorium on oil drilling in the Arctic and cut back on fracking.

Keystone, some say, is not a make-or-break climate issue.

“Basically, we’d trade Keystone for a price on carbon or other important policies,” said Robert Cowin, director of government affairs at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit science advocacy group, speaking figuratively about the broader importance of other legislative approaches to combatting climate change.

Clinton's position on climate change seems to have hit a delicate balance between satisfying environmental activists and avoiding the anger of moderates and businesses interests who support Keystone. One way she's done that is by changing the subject from Keystone to other climate change flashpoints.

“To signal that there is only one overriding threat really doesn’t take into account the seriousness of a whole range of issues,” Clinton said Tuesday. “That’s why I’m coming out with a comprehensive clean energy plan.”

“China is building coal-fired power plants, at least one or two every week to meet demands,” she added. “We have dozens of pipelines already crossing our border from Canada, so we have to look at all of this.”

As Secretary of State in 2010, Clinton said she was “inclined” to support Keystone. Her husband, President Bill Clinton, called in 2012 for embracing the pipeline, and Clinton recently hired former Keystone lobbyists Jeff Berman as a consultant to her campaign, though he will not be a policy advisor.

At least one of Clinton’s closest advisors opposes the pipeline. John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, notably recused himself during his time in the Obama Administration in 2013 from advising on Keystone XL policy because he was a staunch opponent of the project.

Podesta is now advising Clinton on a full range of climate issues, a Clinton campaign official told TIME.

Keystone has long been a rallying call for environmental activists who saw it as a critical last stand in the face of congressional inaction against climate change. Large protests began gathering regularly outside the White House beginning four years ago, with a stream of activists arriving in red traffic vests and polar bear costumes. The virulent opposition took an almost apocalyptic tone: the prominent NASA scientist James Hansen said in June 2011 the pipeline was “game over” for the fight against climate change.

As the climate fight is waged on other fronts, like the federal courts and with the White House’s limits on carbon emissions, Keystone has lost some of its dire urgency for environmentalists compared with four years ago.

Moreover, some evidence shows the actual emissions from the pipeline may not be significant. A State Department review showed in January 2014 the pipeline would deliver 830,000 barrels of oil per day from the Canadian tar sands, or an extra 1.3 million to 27.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year.

However, because Canadian companies would almost certainly extract the oil anyway, the State Department review also said Keystone XL would likely not have a major effect on the removal of fossil fuels from the ground. Keystone is “unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States,” the department said.

A more recent Environmental Protection Agency letter to the State Department disagreed, however, arguing that the 1,179-mile pipeline would increase oil production by making it cheaper to transport.

Clinton has proposed expanding the United States’ reliance on clean energy dramatically by 2027, moving a third of U.S. energy to renewable sources within ten years of taking office and increasing the amount of solar capacity 700% by 2020. She would extend tax incentives for renewable and give grants to states that adopted clean energy measures.

By not opposing Keystone and giving few details about restricting the fossil fuel industry, Clinton has also avoided scrutiny from businesses and oil companies.

“It’s obvious what Clinton’s thinking is: she’ll be better than any Republican elected, probably by a mile. She simply expects environmentalists to fall in line,” said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “And she wants to keep her business sector happy.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley have both criticized Clinton for not taking a stance on Keystone XL. “It is hard for me to understand how one can be concerned about climate change but not vigorously oppose the Keystone pipeline,” Sanders said in a statement. O'Malley has vigorously opposed the pipeline and called for 100% reliance on renewable energy by 2050.

Clinton’s punt on Keystone is not the first time a Democratic candidate has avoided the issue. Four years ago, President Obama announced he was subjecting the pipeline to an Administration review, effectively delaying a decision until after the 2012 election.

Still, for some, Keystone remains a barometer of Clinton’s conviction on climate change.

“Keystone is also a proxy for other questions about extreme energy: Will she stand up to the fossil fuel industry on opening the arctic to oil exploration,” Bill McKibben, a prominent climate change activist said in an email. “What about offshore drilling? Continued leases of coal in the powder river basin?”

“These are things a president gets to decide, so we need to know what she thinks,” McKibben said.

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