Some Environmentalists Worry Keystone XL Pipeline Could Become Bargaining Chip In Budget Talks

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) listens while speaking to the press with other House Republican conferees on Capitol Hill October 1, 20
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) listens while speaking to the press with other House Republican conferees on Capitol Hill October 1, 2013 in Washington, DC. The US government is in a forced shutdown after lawmakers failed to pass a spending bill last night. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- With Republicans trying to capitalize during a budget showdown that has shut down the government, some environmentalists are concerned the proposed Keystone XL pipeline could become a bargaining chip.

Environmental activists staged a sit-in at the Tip O'Neill federal building in Boston on Monday to urge the State Department, which has offices in the building, to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. At the event, protesters expressed concern that approval of the pipeline could be included in budget talks between the White House and congressional Republicans.

Before the shutdown, the New York Times reported that Republican pipeline supporters were planning to demand Keystone XL approval from President Barack Obama in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. “We feel like this is our only option,” Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) told the Times.

Some environmental groups are worried it could come up as the shutdown drags on and the debt-ceiling deadline approaches. “The pipeline is not something that should be negotiated on,” Malcolm Bliss, the Massachusetts coordinator for environmental group 350.org, told local newspaper The Republican at Monday’s event. Bliss added that the protest was “the next step to keep the pipeline at bay until it can be formally rejected.”

Approval of the pipeline has been a contentious issue for the Obama administration. If constructed, the Keystone XL would transport about 800,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast, but State Department approval is needed because it would cross the Canadian border. Recent polls show that a majority of the public supports the pipeline, but environmentalists, and a number of ranchers and other locals who own property where the pipeline would cross say it would exacerbate climate change and pose a spill threat. Obama has said that the pipeline should only be approved if it "does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution," but the State Department is not expected to make a final decision until 2014.

There is no indication so far that Obama is willing to negotiate on the budget impasse -- let alone that he’d allow the much-debated Keystone XL pipeline to be included in potential talks.

But some Republicans, looking to get something out of the shutdown, see the pipeline as an appealing option that might also draw support from moderate Democrats who want to see it built.

On conservative radio host Bill Bennett's "Morning in America” show Wednesday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) mentioned approval of the Keystone XL pipeline as a possible concession that House Republicans could win in exchange for passing a budget.

"I know there are a lot of Democrats who agree with us on Keystone. We have the votes for that," said Ryan. "I want to go get things we can get."

But Elijah Zarlin, a senior campaign manager at the progressive activist group CREDO who took part in Monday’s protest in Boston, said he is not worried Obama will approve the pipeline as a part of a deal with Republicans.

"President Obama rejected the pipeline in 2011, partially because Republicans were forcing him to make a decision on it," Zarlin said. "I would be really surprised if he relinquished his authority to cave to Republicans on something so important to his base."

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