Environmental groups have spent the past few years building a "firewall" in the Senate to support environmental policies ranging from gases">greenhouse gas emission regulations to conservation and to block rollback measures approved by the GOP-led House.
But a handful of Senate Democrats running close contests in red-leaning states have presented a quandary: they back Keystone XL, and some oppose Obama administration-proposed greenhouse gas regulations for power plants, a cornerstone of President Obama's climate agenda.
So now those groups face a dilemma — ruling out all Senate Democrats who back Keystone XL would put its environmental firewall in jeopardy. The litmus test this year, officials from those groups' political advocacy arms say, is whether incumbents and candidates support Obama's climate plan.
"There's going to be more nuance in how we do our jobs," Heather Taylor-Miesle, who runs the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, told the Washington Examiner.
Backing Keystone XL hasn't excluded a candidate from environmental support in the past, environmental groups noted. Both the National Wildlife Federation Action Fund and League of Conservation Voters Action Fund, for example, endorsed Sen. John Tester, D-Mont., in 2012 for his record on conservation and clean air issues, despite his support of Keystone XL.
But there's less leeway to be selective on Keystone XL this year. Of the 11 Democrats who sent a letter to Obama earlier this month urging him to approve the project, six are running tight races.
Some of those Democrats have poor environmental records, so environmental groups are so far holding out. Still, flipping to a Republican majority is certainly not ideal for them, either.
But Taylor-Miesle noted the status quo has proved frustrating as well. She said it doesn't make sense to continue rewarding Democrats who don't support her group's aims, so Taylor-Miesle is being more strategic about her targets. Lawmakers who don't back Obama's climate plans "don't even get calls back," she said.
"I think there is an argument to be made there that a Senate led by [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid [D-Nev.] is going to be friendlier to the environment, there's no doubt about that. But we're in a time period where we need votes," she said. "We've had Democrats in the majority for a long time. A winning strategy is not just to elect Democrats. It's to elect environmental champions."
While few endorsements have been rendered thus far, environmental groups are starting to gear up for the November election.
The Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund and the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund announced earlier this month that they would join forces to coordinate donations for the November elections. The groups are aiming to raise $5 million in donations to back environmental candidates.
Taylor-Miesle noted that her group already has endorsed Sen. Mark Begich despite his cheerleading for the $5.4 billion Canada-to-Texas project. She said her group is backing the Alaska Democrat because they anticipate he will be reliable when it comes to upholding the Obama administration's greenhouse gas regulations.
"That's the ball I will be focused on in November," she said of the carbon rules.
The groups say the reasons for that are twofold: One is that the State Department is handling the Keystone XL process, so there's little chance for the Senate to have a role; the other is that a threat persists that Congress could vote to thwart the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for example, is trying to use a rare political maneuver to block the rules, though it's not clear whether that's possible to do until they're finalized.
When it comes to climate change, the power plant rules would have a far greater impact of restraining carbon emissions than the Keystone XL pipeline would have on raising them. And, like the pipeline, the power plant rules are the subject of intense lobbying and polarization.
As such, the groups have kept Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., a friend to the oil-and-gas industry, at arm's length. It's also the sound of crickets for Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Kentucky Democrat who has been cool to the EPA's greenhouse gas rules, even though she has a chance to unseat McConnell.
The latest Keystone XL delay this month brought the issue into focus. The State Department said it would halt interagency review of the pipeline while it awaits a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling on the legality of the current pipeline route.
Republicans and centrist Democrats, like Landrieu, accused the White House of politicizing the pipeline, as the latest delay will likely put a final decision beyond the midterm elections. Some alluded to the influence of billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer and his NextGen Climate Action PAC, which a day earlier said it would support Democrats who take a stand against the pipeline.
But even Steyer has softened on attacking pro-Keystone XL Democrats. With regard to the pipeline, Steyer said Sunday in an interview on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" that it would be "unfair" to say any one decision would define Obama's climate legacy.
And while Steyer rose to national prominence with his opposition to Keystone XL, he said he would use the $100 million war chest he plans to amass — half of which would come from his own wallet — through NextGen Climate not specifically against pipeline advocates. He said on "Newsmakers" that he will play in races with a "significant difference" between candidates on energy and climate views, where there's something "important at stake" that could have a "longer term impact."
Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of governmental affairs with the League of Conservation Voters, didn't address what races it might play in. But of Keystone XL, she said the pipeline is just one of many factors it will consider when it does endorse.
"Certainly we don't agree with all of our friends on everything," she told the Washington Examiner.