Tuesday was a no good, very bad day for many reasons, but especially for the environment. Leadership on environmental policy in the Senate will almost certainly be handed over to James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who thinks that “increases in global temperatures may have a beneficial effect on how we live our lives,” and that regardless, God will take care of things. Even deeper Republican gains in the House mean that it’ll be a long, long time before Democrats could regain full legislative control, so any legislation to put a tax on carbon or otherwise slow emissions is out of the question barring a reversal in the GOP’s position on climate science. And then there’s the Keystone XL pipeline, which Republicans have identified as a priority, and the media are now treating like a sure thing.
Anti-Keystone groups have a different take. “Nothing’s changed,” said Jane Kleeb, director of Bold Nebraska—except, she said, for the fact that staunch KXL proponent and climate denier Lee Terry lost his Nebraska congressional seat to a Democratic challenger. “Republicans both in the House and the Senate have always played this game—they have for the last four years—that they’re going to approve Keystone XL without the president.”
It’s true that pressure to approve the pipeline will become more focused and immediate if the House and Senate pass a bill to override the president’s authority over cross-border projects. Now that Republicans have enough pro-Keystone votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster, it’s almost certain such legislation will wind up on Obama’s desk.
The question is whether he’ll sign it. On Thursday, press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama will consider whatever legislation Congress sends his way. That the White House declined to threaten a veto outright—as it has in the past—generated headlines and added to speculation that the White House could use the approval of Keystone as a bargaining chip.
So things sound pretty bad for Keystone opponents. However, there are a number of problems with the keystone-is-inevitable story. First, while the GOP will certainly leverage its majority in Congress to up the ante on KXL, political pressure from the president’s own party could swing more clearly in the opposite direction now that many of the pro-Keystone Democrats have lost their seats.
Second, it’s not clear that KXL would be all that valuable as a bargaining chip. The pipeline’s chief value to the Republicans depends on it not getting built, so they can continue to use it as a political bludgeon against Democrats. (Although that’s not to say that fulfilling their campaign promise to get it approved wouldn’t be counted as a victory.)
Third, it’s hard to imagine that Obama would sign legislation that explicitly limits his executive authority, even in the name of “cooperation.” The implications of doing so would be larger than Keystone. From national security to immigration to climate action, the White House has consistently argued for broader, not narrower, powers. Indeed, Obama and Earnest reiterated the president’s ability and intention to use that authority after the midterms in a variety of contexts.