AUGUSTA — Election-year presidential politics came to the Maine Senate on Thursday as lawmakers voted along party lines to urge President Obama and Congress to complete the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
Led by the majority Republicans, senators voted 17-15 to pass the resolution just one day before Obama's scheduled campaign fundraiser in Portland. The resolve, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jonathan Courtney, R-Springvale, has no legal bearing on the project, which would transfer tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, through several U.S. channels.
Proponents of the pipeline hope that similar nonbinding resolutions will continue to create support among an American public getting whacked by climbing gasoline prices. Identical versions of the resolution have surfaced in other state legislatures through a coordinated campaign to pressure Beltway lawmakers to green-light the project.
Courtney on Thursday was besieged by accusations that his decision to introduce the amendment was to facilitate a two-pronged political debate playing out in presidential and congressional races.
National Republicans have made high gas prices a campaign issue, claiming that Obama and congressional Democrats are blocking the Keystone project at the expense of lowering domestic gas prices.
Courtney, who is running against U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, in the 1st Congressional District, said he had three reasons for introducing the resolution: The cost per gallon of gasoline the day Obama was sworn into office, the cost it is now and a projection by national experts that gas will be $5 per gallon by summer.
"The people of Maine are hurting because of these prices," Courtney said. "There hasn't been a comprehensive plan to reduce oil prices by this administration."
Republicans added that the pipeline would not only reduce gas prices but keep the country out of wars in the Middle East.
Senate Democrats blasted the resolve, saying it was a political stunt.
Democrats deployed some of their own election-year rhetoric: They claimed the GOP was favoring corporations over the environment and regular people.
Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, said the resolve was lifted from draft legislation by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative policy group backed by corporate donors.
“Who funds (ALEC)? Big oil does,” Bartlett said. “They want the pipeline. It’s good for their bottom line."
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, said the only reason the resolve was debated was because it's an election year.
"This is nothing more, nothing less than a resolution on an even-numbered year," he said.
Republicans aren't the only party to attempt using high gasoline prices as a political weapon. In 2008, Democrats frequently blasted President George W. Bush when gas prices hit current levels.
According to information from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average price for a gallon of gas was $4.12 in July 2008. The price plummeted to $1.61 in December 2008, along with the near collapse of the national economy.
Economists and commodities analysts have attributed the current spike in gas prices to an improving economy and increased demand. However, economists warn that escalating gas prices also can stunt the recovery.
Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics recently told the Los Angeles Times that gas prices are "the most serious immediate threat to consumer confidence and the broader economy."
Environmental groups say TransCanda's Keystone project wouldn't lower gas prices and would hurt the environment.
"Let’s be clear that TransCanada’s own analysis shows that the Keystone XL pipeline would likely increase gas prices for Americans," Emily Figdor of Environment Maine said in a statement.
"The only winner would be Big Oil, and so it’s no surprise that this resolution comes straight out of the playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the D.C.-based corporate lobbying group funded by Big Oil," Figdor said.