Obama Split Over Keystone Pipeline: Side With Christians, Environmentalists or Unions?

Despite the president’s attempts to stall a decision allowing the construction of a TransCanada Keystone XL oil pipeline, Barack Obama is caught in a desperate position where he is being pressured to choose, sooner rather than later, between either jobs or the environment.

With the U.S. unemployment rate stuck at 9 percent, employment is set to become a key issue going into the 2012 election. Obama, who created the American Jobs Act, has traveled the country to promote job creation. However, there is one economic opportunity that his administration has tried to avoid: the TransCanada Keystone pipeline.

The company promises the 2,154-mile international tar sands pipeline extending from Alberta, Canada, to U.S. markets in Illinois, Nebraska and Oklahoma will create “more than $20 billion in new private sector investment in the U.S. economy” as well as create 20,000 construction jobs that will “generate $6.5 billion in new personal income.”

But the administration has delayed making a decision on the matter because an answer now on either side of the issue will upset key support groups ahead of the 2012 presidential election.

Environmental protesters have made it hard for the Obama administration to feign ignorance about the controversy surrounding the project.

Last month, protesters crashed Obama’s education address at the University of Colorado. A handful of demonstrators raised a banner calling on the president to block the pipeline. It read, “Stop the Keystone Pipeline Project.” Obama stopped his speech to address them.

“All right. Thank you guys,” he said. “We’re looking at it right now, all right? No decision has been made and I know your deep concern about it. So we will address.”

The president’s gentle admonishment was not enough to halt the Washington, D.C., demonstrations.

On Sunday, environmentalist protesters formed a ring around the White House to urge the president not to approve a project they believe would transport the dirtiest oil in existence across the United States.

“The non-conventional oil that this pipeline is designed to transport produces … three times more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional crude oil,” said Rose Berger, Tar Sands Action organizer for progressive Christian group Sojourners.

Berger and other members of the U.S. faith community have joined voices with the protesters because, they argue, the increased emissions will disproportionally harm the poor as well as damage the earth that God gave man stewardship over.

John Elwood, an evangelical and pastor in the Presbyterian Church of America, told The Christian Post the pipeline’s path will run through 1,904 rivers and streams – including Nebraska’s Ogallala Aquifer – putting the livelihood and drinking water of the poor in harm’s way.

Elwood said the issue is one that directly involves God.

Referring to Psalm 51:4, he said, “When we do things that affect the poor harmfully, of course we do it to God and when we bless the poor, we do that to God.”

Elwood continued, “But it’s not just the poor. When we harm the earth [we do that to God].”

Mark H. Ayers, president of the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, said in a statement on the website, “For America's skilled craft construction professionals, any discussion of the Keystone XL project begins and ends with one word: jobs. Today, roughly 14 percent of the American construction workforce is unemployed – which is significantly higher than the overall national unemployment rate of 9 percent.”

Ayers acknowledged that the Ogallala Aquifer already has more than 20,000 miles of pipelines crossing. But he noted that any leak of the Keystone XL pipeline would not affect the majority of the Ogallala Aquifer.

The poor, Ayers said, need jobs.

“While all of the environmental and national security issues have been adequately debated and addressed, it is the critical economic benefits that, in our opinion, supersede all others,” he said.

Berger responded, “The number of jobs it would bring them is actually a very small numbers.”

The 20,000 jobs that unions are expecting are actually only 6,000 jobs, according to the State Department, Berger and Elwood explained.

Berger said the jobs are actually a “smoke screen.”

Environmentalists, often shunned by the Republican Party, are a key Democratic constituency. The Christian community, which Obama carried in 2008, is also important for a 2012 win. Members of both of these groups have publicly protested the pipeline.

In August, 60 interfaith leaders protested the pipeline across the street from the White House along with NASA scientist James Hansen and Kill Bill actress Daryl Hannah Change and were arrested.

Elwood was not among the 60 leaders arrested.

Unions, which stand in favor the pipeline, are also a key Democratic electorate.

Since unions rallied for Obama’s election in 2008, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has decided to make the union more politically independent after bumping heads with the president over issues such as the union enabling Employee Free Choice Act, the public health insurance option and the renewal of the Bush tax cuts.

The Obama administration has sought to tighten its connection to the AFL-CIO by increasing construction contracts in his jobs bill. However, the AFL-CIO has made it clear that it also wants the administration to approve the pipeline.

Citizens for Affordable Energy President John Hofmeister told Politico Obama can win both sides by waiting until after the election to decide the divisive issue.

“He wins both ways by deferring the decision and he ultimately wins the loyalty and support of the American people by deciding in favor of the project,” Hofmeister said.

Berger said she understands that the president has a hard decision to make, but noted, “I think it is less divisive among the American public and it’s more divisive between Obama and TransCanada.”

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