WASHINGTON — The Keystone XL pipeline could hold both political opportunity and peril for Democrat Bob Kerrey's U.S. Senate campaign in Nebraska .
Throwing his support behind the pipeline would endear him to certain union groups that are behind the project but could potentially alienate Nebraskans who have been opposing it out of concern for the environment and landowner rights.
Opposing the pipeline would rally its foes to his side but open him up to Republicans eager to tie the debate to gas prices and the economy.
The three major Republican candidates in the race — Treasurer Don Stenberg, State Sen. Deb Fischer and Attorney General Jon Bruning — all support pushing forward with the pipeline as a way to lower gas prices and create jobs.
Kerrey said recently that running the pipeline through the Ogallala Aquifer is a bad idea and that he is glad the route is being changed to avoid the Sand Hills. But he also said that he has yet to thoroughly review the larger pros and cons of tapping Canada's tar sands for oil.
Kerrey said climate change is among the compelling problems facing the country that prompted him to enter the race to succeed retiring Sen. Ben Nelson, also a Democrat.
"Whether you solve it with cap and trade or some alternative, if you don't solve it, I think it's one that in short order we're going to regret not doing," Kerrey said.
TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline would run 1,700 miles from Canada to the Gulf Coast, transporting up to 830,000 barrels of oil per day. President Barack Obama has resisted approving the pipeline without additional review and a finalized route through Nebraska.
He has backed TransCanada's plans to push forward with a southern portion of the project, however.
Some environmentalists say Canada's tar sands are a vast source of particularly dirty fossil fuels that would throw climate change into overdrive.
But Kerrey cited one argument advanced by pipeline supporters: Canada can always build its own pipelines to the west and simply ship the oil to China from there if the United States refuses to approve the Keystone XL.
"It may be that that genie's out of the bottle already, and if you're down to a choice of summarily shipping it west and having it end up being sent to China or shipping it south and used by the United States, it's probably difficult to oppose it at this point," Kerrey told The World-Herald. "But I haven't reached an absolute decision on it."
Bold Nebraska's Jane Kleeb said many of the people who have joined the group in fighting the pipeline are getting involved in politics for the first time ever and represent a potential base of enthusiastic supporters for Kerrey if he opposes the pipeline.
"Any candidate who's going to be running on a populist platform will have to oppose the pipeline on the water and eminent-domain grounds," Kleeb said.
On the other side, Republicans are likely to focus on the message that approving the pipeline would ease drivers' pain at the pump.
The potential power of that message was clear last week on Capitol Hill.
A Senate proposal to force approval of the pipeline won a clear majority of support, although it fell short of the 60 votes necessary to advance. Eleven Democrats crossed party lines to vote with Republicans in favor of the pipeline, despite personal lobbying calls from Obama.
Bruning said he favors immediate construction of the pipeline and would have voted for the Senate proposal.
"Its failure has halted the creation of thousands of private sector jobs and continued our dependence on foreign oil," Bruning said.
Stenberg had initially objected to sending the Keystone XL through the Sand Hills. But he said Friday that TransCanada's agreement to alter the route addressed his concerns and that there is no need to finalize the Nebraska route before approving the project.
"The president will use any excuse to prevent construction of the pipeline, which is opposed by his radical environmentalist supporters," Stenberg said.
Fischer said that state officials have worked to find the right route for the pipeline and that the president is playing politics.
"I support construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in order to lower gas prices and create thousands of American jobs," she said.
Pipeline opponents point to the fact that gas prices are rising despite increased domestic oil production and relatively steady demand. They say even if the Keystone XL is built, there's no promise that the oil will remain in the United States and benefit domestic consumers.
"Americans aren't buying this oil scam anymore," Kleeb said.
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