The State Department gave a crucial green light on Friday to a proposed 1,711-mile pipeline that would carry heavy oilfrom oil sands in Canada across the Great Plains to terminals in Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast.
The project, which would be the longest oil pipeline outside of Russia and China, has become a potent symbol in a growing fight that pits energy security against environmental risk, a struggle highlighted by last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
By concluding that the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline would have minimal effect on the environment, President Obama would risk alienating environmental activists, who gave him important support in the 2008 election and were already upset by his recent decisions to expand domestic oil drilling and delay clean air rules. Pipeline opponents have protested in front of the White House for a week, resulting in nearly 400 arrests.
At the same time, rising concerns about the weak economy and high gas prices have made it difficult for the administration to oppose a project that would greatly expand the nation’s access to oil from a friendly neighbor and create tens of thousands of jobs.
The project still must clear several hurdles, including endorsement by other federal agencies, additional studies, public hearings and consultation with the states through which the pipeline will pass. But all signs point to the Obama administration approving the project by the end of the year, perhaps with modifications.
Environmental advocates say that the messy process of extracting and processing tarry oil from the Alberta wilderness would significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions and devastate bird habitats. And they warn that a leak in the 36-inch-diameter pipeline could wreak severe environmental damage.
The State Department said in its environmental impact statement Friday that the pipeline’s owner, TransCanada, had agreed to take steps required by the Transportation Department to reduce the risks of a spill.
The impact statement did not fully resolve concerns raised by other federal agencies, particularly the Environmental Protection Agency, which harshly criticized earlier drafts. An E.P.A. spokeswoman, Betsaida Alcantara, said that the agency would carefully review the latest statement to determine whether it adequately dealt with questions about the pipeline’s impacts on air quality, drinking water, endangered species and minority and Native American communities.
The pipeline is expected to open in 2013 unless delayed by lawsuits or other challenges.
For many in the environmental movement, the administration’s apparent acceptance of the pipeline was yet another disappointment, after recent decisions to tentatively approve drilling in the Arctic Ocean, open 20 million more acres of the Gulf of Mexico for oil leasing and delay several major air quality regulations. Environmentalists are still smarting from the administration’s failure to push climate change legislation through Congress.
Analysts and environmental advocates said these decisions had opened a wide and perhaps unbridgeable breach between the Democratic president and environmentally minded voters. It is far from certain, however, that these activists will withhold their support from Mr. Obama in November 2012, particularly if he is running against a Republican who denies the existence of climate change and is more supportive of the oil industry than he is.
Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, urged President Obama to veto the project, despite the State Department’s willingness to see it proceed.
“It will be increasingly difficult to mobilize the environmental base and to mobilize in particular young people to volunteer, to knock on thousands of doors, to put in 16-hour days, to donate money if they don’t think the president is showing the courage to stand up to big polluters,” he said.
Julian E. Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said that the 2012 election was shaping up to be close and the president could not afford to take these activists for granted. “I think a year ago President Obama felt he could do things that might alienate his base and organizations important to the Democratic Party and get away with it because in the end most Democrats wouldn’t go for a Republican,” Mr. Zelizer said. “Now he might pay a price for it.”
With the campaign heating up, the president appears reluctant to pursue environmental policies that could be characterized as suppressing job creation or keeping energy prices high.