WASHINGTON -- It's a decision President Barack Obama put off during the 2012 campaign, but now that he's won a second term, his next move on a proposed oil pipeline between the United States and Canada may signal how he will deal with climate and energy issues in the four years ahead.
Obama is facing increasing pressure to determine the fate of the $7 billion Keystone XL project, with environmental activists and oil producers each holding out hope that the president, freed from the political constraints of re-election, will side with them on this and countless other related issues down the road.
On its surface, it's a choice between the promise of jobs and economic growth, and environmental concerns. But it's also become a proxy for a broader fight over American energy consumption and climate change, amplified by superstorm Sandy and the conclusion of an election that was all about the economy.
"The broader climate movement is absolutely looking at this administration's Keystone XL decision as a really significant decision to signal that dirty fuels are not acceptable in the U.S.," said Danielle Droitsch, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Once content with delays that have kept the pipeline from moving forward at full speed, opponents of Keystone XL have launched protests in recent weeks at the White House and in Texas urging Obama to kill the project outright.
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By contrast, on Capitol Hill, support for the pipeline appears to be gaining.
But Obama has shown little urgency about the pipeline, which would carry crude oil about 1,700 miles from western Canada to Texas Gulf Coast refineries. The pipeline requires State Department approval because it crosses an international boundary.
The pipeline became an issue in the campaign, and Obama put it on hold while a plan was worked out to avoid routing it through Nebraska's environmentally sensitive Sandhills region.
TransCanada, the company applying to build it, revised the route, but that caused the lengthy environmental review process to start over.
In the meantime, the company split the project into two parts, starting construction in August on a southern segment between Oklahoma and Texas even as it waits for approval for the northern segment that crosses the Canadian border.
Although the lower leg didn't require Obama's sign-off, he gave it his blessing in March anyway, irking environmental activists who see the pipeline as a slap to efforts to reduce oil consumption and fend off climate change.