WASHINGTON — Two Senate Democrats on Friday strengthened their push against the Keystone XL pipeline, unveiling a letter from public health groups urging the Obama administration to study the medical risks associated with the project.
The move by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., came one day after 11 of their Democratic colleagues insisted that the time for study had passed, illustrating the rocky political terrain facing President Barack Obama as his State Department decides whether the pipeline is in the “national interest.”
While fierce environmentalists such as Boxer and Whitehouse oppose the project, moderate Democrats in tough reelection contests are pushing the other way — potentially a political survival strategy in red states such as Alaska and Arkansas and for Democrats who risk losing control of the Senate if Republicans capture just six of those swing seats on Nov. 4.
Complicating the political calculus on Keystone XL, loyal Democratic donors have pledged to steer money to pipeline foes, with California billionaire Tom Steyer vowing to invest $50 million into campaigns to elevate climate change as a political issue before the Nov. 4 elections.
Speaking of the Keystone XL supporters in her own Democratic caucus, Boxer stressed that each senator “has the right to their opinion.”
“I feel very comfortable that all of them will do what they have to do to represent their states well and follow their conscience,” Boxer told reporters on a conference call. “What we’re doing is just saying that when it comes to the public health and the survival of the planet, you just need to pay attention to that regardless of whether it’s an election year or not.”
Boxer and Whitehouse want health issues to play a bigger role in the Keystone XL debate. In February, they asked Secretary of State John Kerry to complete a comprehensive human health study on TransCanada Corp.’s proposed border-crossing pipeline.
That request was amplified in a letter from the American Public Health Association and the National Association of County and City Health Officials, released Friday by the senators.
“The full spectrum of health considerations are often overlooked in important decisions,” the groups said. “the administration will certainly benefit by having a clear understanding of how the proposed Keystone XL pipeline could impact the public’s health, including the health of our most vulnerable citizens.”
Whitehouse said the voices of doctors, nurses and other medical professionals in the pipeline debate “were getting rolled by big money and the Keystone steamroller.”
“It would be a mistake to fail to listen to them,” Whitehouse said. “Ultimately, history will be the judge of who got this right; it’s important we do our best to be on the right side of that decision.”
Most of the State Department’s review so far has focused on environmental issues surrounding the proposed pipeline that would link Alberta with the crude hub in Cushing, Okla., giving Canada’s oil sands a new route to the Gulf Coast market.
But the State Department’s national interest determination wraps in other considerations, including economic and security concerns. Federal agencies have until mid-May to weigh in on the national interest question, but there is no defined timeline for action after that.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., one of the leading Keystone XL champions in the Democratic caucus, is planning an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the subject, possibly in May. That could lay the groundwork for a Senate vote on legislation to set a deadline for a final government decision on Keystone XL.