Environmental organizations and the oil-and-gas industry say one of the first litmus tests for President Obama's second term is his highly anticipated decision over a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.

Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director, told reporters on Nov. 7 that environmental groups want the president to reject outright the extension of the $7-billion crude-oil pipeline from the Canadian tar sands through Nebraska and down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Brune added, “We do not see the expansion of the tar sands as being able to be reconciled in any way with any serious commitment to climate change.”

The American Petroleum Institute (API) agrees the Keystone pipeline decision will be a major test. Although it is hopeful the president will approve the revised Keystone XL Pipeline route, API is by no means a given. “It will be one of the early tests or early questions for the president [to see] if his actions will match his words,” API President Jack Gerard told reporters on Nov. 8.

Gerard said the new route avoids Nebraska's environmentally sensitive Sand Hills region, a key reason the pipeline was rejected early this year. Gerard says the local opposition “has now been cured, so the question now comes back to the administration … it’s really a political decision on the part of the administration if they’ll approve [the] Keystone XL pipeline.” 

Some engineering and construction industry officials believe the project will be approved. Phil Mihlmester, executive vice president, global energy, for McLean, Va.-based ICF International, says, “I think that, ultimately, approval will be there.”

Both environmental and oil-and-gas groups claimed victory in the 2012 elections, although for different reasons.

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, said, “Big oil and other big polluters spent unprecedented amounts of big money to spread big lies—and they lost, big time.” President Obama and other “clean-energy champions” were big winners in the elections, he added.

For example, although Karpinski did not disclose how much environmental groups had spent overall to support clean energy or environmental efforts, he said that, collectively, several environmental groups, including the League of Conservation Voters, the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and Environment America, had spent more than $2 million in the effort to elect Rep. Martin Heinrich (D) to retiring Jeff Bingaman’s (D) vacant New Mexico seat.

The Center for Responsive Politics shows the League of Conservation Voters was the top environmental organization to make political contributions in the 2011-12 cycle, spending approximately $1.3 million. Environment America gave $1.09 million, and the Sierra Club gave $712,124.

API's Gerard, on the other hand, pointed to strong support in polls for domestic oil and gas production and the ultimate outcome of the races. “We are going to give the president the benefit of the doubt,” Gerard said. “He has evolved on the oil-and-gas issue … so we’re hopeful, and we’ll continue to believe until we see otherwise,” he said.

ICF International's Mihlmester thinks the second Obama term probably will look much like the first, its blueprint for the major energy and environmental policies already in place. Some of these policies include continued work by the Environmental Protection Agency on regulations for CO2 emissions from powerplants, the mercury maximum-achievable technology rule and the cross-state air pollution (CSAPR) rule.

Although a three-judge panel earlier this year rejected the CSAPR regulation seeking to curb emissions at coal-fired plants, the EPA in October asked the full court to review the case.

One difference now, several sources say, is a renewed interest in climate change, prompted largely by the effects of Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey. Both Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have said legislation to address climate change would be a priority during the next four years.

But that fight will be an uphill battle, said the Sierra Club’s Brune, who pointed to the view held by many House and Senate Republicans that climate change is not being caused by human activity. He says Senate Republicans are likely to threaten a filibuster over any sort of legislation to address climate change and that the only solution is a change in Senate rules.

On Nov. 7, Reid told reporters he was working on just that. “I’m not doing away with the filibuster,” he said, but noted that he was looking at ways to revamp the rules for debate.