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After Hillary Clinton dodged a question about the controversial tar sands project on Tuesday,  Sen. Bernie Sanders said he finds it hard to "understand how one can be concerned about climate change but not vigorously oppose the Keystone pipeline." (Photo: Jim Cole/AP)

As Clinton Dodges on KXL, Sanders Voices 'Vigorous' Opposition

While leading candidate finds "wiggle room" to avoid answering tough question, her more progressive rival takes advantage

Jon Queally

Hillary Clinton says she'll take a firm position for or against the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, but only after it's already been decided by the current administration or after she's elected president in 2016.

Asked about her stance on the controversial project at a town hall-style meeting in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Clinton said that as the former Secretary of State it would be "inappropriate" for her to take a position because the review of the controversial project was initiated under her direction.

"It is hard for me to understand how one can be concerned about climate change but not vigorously oppose the Keystone pipeline." —Sen. Bernie Sanders

However, critics of Clinton's statement—including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), currently her leading rival for the Democratic nomination—were quick to pounce on the opportunity.

The question posed to her was simple enough. "As president, would you sign a bill—yes or no, please—in favor of allowing the Keystone XL pipeline," asked Bruce Blodgett, the local resident identified as the questioner. 

"If it’s undecided when I become president, I will answer your question," Clinton answered. "This is President Obama's decision. I'm not going to second-guess him."

Though Blodgett later explained to reporters he tried his "best not to give her any wiggle room," he said Clinton "found wiggle room" anyway.  And though Blodgett said he registers why the Democratic frontrunner offered a "non-answer" on the subject, he said that didn't make it the "right non-answer."

For his part, Sanders said in the wake of her comments that he finds it hard to "understand how one can be concerned about climate change but not vigorously oppose the Keystone pipeline."

As the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza pointed out, "This is pure politics by Clinton. It's a gamble based on the idea that the disgust over her failure to answer a direct question will be far less damaging than the fallout if she did offer her opinion. She might well be right, politically speaking. But that doesn't make it the right thing to do."

Over at The New Republic, journalist Rebecca Leber documents the number of times Clinton, throughout her recent political career has commented on the project—often showing an underlying level of support, but never speaking out strongly against it.

Meanwhile, climate justice campaigners—who have tirelessly opposed the project and made it a benchmark issue on judging whether elected lawmakers are taking the threat of global warming seriously—expressed immediate disappointment with one what journalist called Clinton's "ridiculous hedge"on the Keystone XL project and all it has come to represent.

"So bogus," tweeted 350.org's communication director Jamie Henn after the news broke about the candidate's comment. "Clinton has taken positions on all sorts of ongoing policy issues."

He also said the dodge is as much an issue of political leadership as it is about climate change. Invoking the Clinton's campaign preferred social media hashtag, Henn added, "Come on, , let’s see some leadership here!"

Tuesday's snafu over Keystone XL also notably occurred as Clinton earlier in the week began to unveil her larger set of proposals regarding climate change and energy policy. And though her plan to dramatically ramp up renewable energy was welcomed, many environmentalists indicated she must go much, much further—especially on the question of fossil fuel development and support of infrastructure projects like pipelines and export terminals—to be considered a candidate who has adequately internalized the crisis of global warming and the unprecedented dangers it presents.

Sanders was among those who applauded Clinton for aspects of her renewable energy plan, but was more in line with those in the climate justice community when he said that solely focusing on building solar panels and erecting windmills is simply not enough. "We must make significant reductions in carbon emissions and break our dependency on fossil fuels," said Sanders. "That is why I have helped lead the fight in the Senate against the Keystone pipeline which would transport some of the dirtiest fossil fuel in the world."

In an emailed statement sent to Time magazine, Bill McKibben, Henn's colleague at 350.org, elaborated on why Clinton's dodge on Keystone XL is an important indication for those assessing her candidacy.

"Keystone is also a proxy for other questions about extreme energy: Will she stand up to the fossil fuel industry on opening the arctic to oil exploration," McKibben stated. "What about offshore drilling? Continued leases of coal in the Powder River Basin?"

"These are things a president gets to decide, so we need to know what she thinks," McKibben said.

And if the Clinton campaign thinks that the general public, or the mass media, doesn't care about her position on Keystone XL, Henn suggests they rethink that mindset.

"Google News pulls up over 1,000 articles from the last 24 hours on and Keystone XL," he tweeted on Wednesday. "Sounds like an election issue to me."

And lastly, whether as a prediction or as warning, Henn added, "KXL questions (& protests) will follow Clinton all election if the pipeline is undecided (or approved). Rejection is her only way out."


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