White House protests, waiting to be arrested (photo: Shadia Fayne Wood)

Darren Goode has a story about the difficulty that environmentalists opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline have had with getting Senate Democrats to help them expose conflicts of interest.

Environmental groups opposing the $7 billion, 1,700-mile pipeline sending crude from Alberta oil sands to Texas have uncovered evidence they say shows the State Department has already made up its mind, such as internal emails showing a cozy relationship between a TransCanada lobbyist and former Hillary Clinton campaign aide with a department official working on the project.

But while House Republicans have fanned the flames of the Solyndra affair with an unending stream of letters, hearings and subpoena threats, Senate Democrats — who have all the same arrows in their quivers — have been slow to take up arms over Keystone.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, long a champion of green causes, cited a busy schedule — which includes a seat on the deficit-cutting supercommitee — as his reason for not jumping on the issue, although it involves the State Department.

Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman has no plans to look into the pipeline review or the project itself before the State Department makes its decision by the end of the year.

And when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wrote Clinton this month to question the need for the pipeline, his office kept the letter quiet. Reid’s letter wasn’t released by his office or even publicly cited until The Washington Post referenced it in a story two weeks after it was sent.

I didn’t realize that the Reid letter wasn’t for public consumption. There does appear to be an effort to mute criticism. I’m assuming that has something to do with the $540,000 in lobbying money TransCanada has thrown Congress’ way in just the third quarter of 2011. And the fact that labor generally supports the pipeline because of the potential job impact may be a factor as well. [cont’d.]

But I would say that the enviro groups are actually doing a pretty good job on their own without the Senate Dems. They got thousands arrested protesting outside the White House. They had 1,000 in the streets just yesterday at an Obama campaign event in San Francisco, including several high-profile big-money donors and bundlers from 2008. They have turned this into a signature issue in the red state of Nebraska, which is particularly threatened by the pipeline. They have raised the attention of the issue higher than anyone could reasonably expect. And today we learn that the State Department may delay their decision on the pipeline, citing massive public outcry as one factor.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the State Department still hoped to make a decision by the end of this year, which has been its target, but that its highest priority was to carry out a thorough, rigorous review. The decision has already been pushed back once […]

“While we still hope to make a decision by the end of the year, we are first and foremost committed to a thorough, transparent and rigorous review process,” said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“So we’re carefully reviewing all of the information we’ve received, including the many comments from the public, and will make a decision only after we have weighed all of the facts,” the official added.

I would say that the Administration wants to approve the pipeline, and remains likely to do so, but it’s more in doubt than before, as they seek to manage the political consequences. And that’s a testament to effective activism thus far. So rather than look to feckless Senate Democrats, my advice to the enviro groups would be to keep it up.

UPDATE: Here’s what happened today in Denver, where President Obama was interrupted by Keystone XL protesters:

THE PRESIDENT: And now, as you young people are getting ready to head out into the world, I know you’re hearing stories from friends and classmates and siblings who are struggling to find work, and you’re wondering what’s in store for your future. And I know that can be scary. (Applause.) So the —

AUDIENCE MEMBER: — Mother Earth — backs of our children and our future.

THE PRESIDENT: All right. Thank you, guys. 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 it.

More on the protest here. And at least some Senate Dems came through today, asking the State Department Inspector General to investigate the conflict of interest in the environmental review of the pipeline. Only three Senators – Sanders, Wyden and Whitehouse – signed it, which is pathetic, but there were also 11 House Democrats on the letter.

David Dayen

David Dayen