Obama donors compare Keystone decision to Lincoln’s outlawing of slavery

An opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline protests outside the Ronald Reagan Building. (Credit: Washington Post)
An opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline protests outside the Ronald Reagan Building. (Credit: Washington Post)

A group of 150 major Democratic donors and clean energy investors have sent President Obama a letter urging him to deny a presidential permit to the Keystone XL pipeline, comparing the decision's significance to Abraham Lincoln's push to end slavery through a constitutional amendment.

The missive, which was sent by the group Thursday and was obtained by The Washington Post, emphasized Obama's respect for Lincoln and suggested the controversial pipeline--which would transport heavy crude from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast--marked a similar turning point in American history.

"He made one of the most important decisions of his presidency and for our nation when he decided that he would fight for the 13th Amendment to end slavery even if it took every ounce of his political capital," they wrote. "Your decision on Keystone may not be so weighty, but we believe it holds a comparable urgency and importance, not strictly as a pipeline decision but as a presidential choice that will signal a fundamentally new direction for our nation."

The signatories include several well-known and wealthy liberal donors, such as Esprit founder Susie Tompkins Buell, actress Blythe Danner and environmentalist Jayni Chase, the wife of comedian Chevy Chase's wife. They wrote Obama that they would "pledge to support you in every way possible" as he sought to respond to the threat of global warming.

White House spokesman Clark Stevens noted in an e-mail that in his first term Obama imposed the first-ever greenhouse gas emissions limits on vehicles and doubled the amount of renewable energy in the United States. But he declined to comment on what the administration would decide to do about Keystone.

"In line with longstanding precedent, the State Department is conducting the assessment of the project – currently assessing public comments and input received following the release of their draft supplemental [environmental impact statement], which will help inform their final supplemental EIS and decision," Stevens wrote.

The activists' letter highlights the extent to which some of the president's core supporters remain frustrated that Obama is unwilling to take bolder action on global warming now that he's been reelected.

Wendy Abrams, an Obama bundler who first discussed climate change with the president more than a decade ago, when he was a law professor at the University of Chicago, said she does not understand why he consider approving a project which "digs a bigger hole" by increasing the global carbon output.

"We’re in a hole, but this digs it even deeper," she said, adding that unlike issues that require the president to negotiate with Congress, the Keystone decision is the administration's alone. "You don’t have to fight for it. You can just take it."

Abrams said that when she saw the movie "Lincoln", she was struck by the similarity between the debate over abolition, "something that seems so obvious," and the current fight over cutting carbon emissions. "In time, the case will be obvious."

Kathy Washienko, a clean energy investor who along with her husband Mike Mathieu gave the maximum legal amount to the president's 2012 reelection campaign, wrote in an e-mail that the fact that the atmospheric concentration of carbon has now surpassed 400 parts per million "should be a stark reminder" of the fact that "we simply won't be able to make the carbon emission reductions we need to if we keep choosing to go in the wrong direction."

Clean energy entrepreneurs Vinod Khosla and Steve Kirsch also signed the letter.

The pipeline "is a lousy investment," Khosla said in a statement. "It has too many risks - financially, politically, and most of all - climatically.  I think the president should deny the permit and when he does, I'll be standing with him."

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