WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who for decades has portrayed himself as one of the nation’s leading environmentalists, is under siege from all sides as he faces one of the most difficult decisions of his career: whether to approve the Keystone pipeline.
Several environmental groups are set to launch campaigns this summer to pressure Kerry into opposing the pipeline. One will publicize his past calls to fight global climate change — statements that they argue would make Kerry look like a hypocrite if he now supports the pipeline.
Pipeline advocates, meanwhile, are gearing up for lobbying efforts of their own, hiring firms whose consultants include several former Kerry aides.
One measure of the intensity of public sentiment: A staggering 1.2 million comments — an unprecedented number — have been submitted by the public as part of the State Department’s review process.
The Keystone pipeline would transport tar sands oil from Canada to refineries along the Gulf Coast. Environmental groups warn that a spill along the route would have a devastating effect on drinking water and that turning the tar sands into usable fuel would result in excessive greenhouse gas emissions.
Kerry will play the key role in the Obama administration’s decision of whether to approve the pipeline because it would cross into the United States from Canada.
That requires the State Department to determine its environmental impact and whether it is in the national interest.
Unless other federal agencies intervene — and appeal to President Obama — Kerry’s decision would determine whether the pipeline goes forward.
“It puts him in a very, very difficult position,” said Tim Wirth, former Colorado senator and undersecretary of state who for decades has worked with Kerry on climate change issues. “He’s got a strong environmental record and such a long history in that area. . . .
My own view is if he were a free agent he wouldn’t say this is something he would want to do,” Wirth said.
Kerry has long prided himself on his environmental activism. He was a member of the delegation that went to Rio de Janeiro in 1992 for the first major meeting on international climate change. He met his wife, Teresa, at an Earth Day rally. In 2007, Kerry and his wife wrote a book called “This Moment on Earth: Today’s New Environmentalists and Their Vision for the Future.”
But Kerry now finds himself acting not as a protester or politician — the roles he has filled for most of his career — but as the nation’s chief diplomat, acting on behalf of the White House and attempting to bring conflicting factions together.
For all the difficulty of presenting himself as an honest broker in foreign affairs, Kerry faces an equally daunting challenging trying to please an array of constituencies in the pipeline fight.
For example, while environmentalists’ opposition is a given, trade unions, another Democratic constituency, mostly support it for the construction jobs the pipeline would bring.
“It’s going to put thousands of our members back to work who need the work,” said Tom Owens, spokesman for the building and construction trades department of the AFL-CIO.
Environmentalists are not buying such a tradeoff. Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director, said Kerry is in a far different position than when he was a senator making speeches or seeking votes.
“Now he has an ability, by himself with the president, to make his mark on the highest-profile climate issue in the country today,” Brune said.
Brune said his organization is planning to target Kerry over the coming weeks through petitions, protests, demonstrations, and social media. “Everything that you can think of in a normal pressure campaign,” he said.
The State Department in March released a draft of an Environmental Impact Statement, saying there were no significant environmental reasons to block the pipeline, which some viewed as an indication the department looked favorably on the project.
After that report is completed, another one will begin — with contributions from eight federal agencies. The second report, called National Interest Determination, will probably take at least three months. Once it is finished, both reports will be given to Kerry, and it will be up to him to make a final recommendation.
If other federal agencies disagree with Kerry’s recommendation, they can appeal to President Obama to reverse it.
Bill McKibben, a leading environmentalist who remembers seeing Kerry protest the Vietnam War in Lexington, Mass., said he has asked to meet with him about the pipeline without success.
“If he and Obama block it, they’ll have a legacy, and a bargaining chip to use with the rest of the world — the first world leaders to stop a big project because it was bad for the climate,” McKibben said. “If they cave to the fossil fuel industry, then they lose their credibility on this issue, with environmentalists but also I fear with the rest of the world.”
The State Department declined to discuss Kerry’s specific views on the pipeline but insisted he considers addressing climate change a top priority in his tenure.
“The State Department is committed to a review that is objective, rigorous, and transparent,” the department said in a statement.
Pipeline advocates are also starting to target Kerry. In mid-March, about six weeks after Kerry was confirmed as secretary of state, the province of Alberta hired new consultants — some with ties to Kerry — to help them ensure the project wins approval.
They enlisted Boston-based communications and strategy firm Rasky Baerlein to “reach out and engage the US administration and key Senate and congressional committees,” according to federal records. Among those registered to lobby for the firm are Graham Shalgian, who worked on Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign; and Joe Baerlein, who has known Kerry for decades. They declined to comment.
The Alberta government also hired the well-connected Washington firm Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti to lobby US officials. David Castagnetti, a principal at the firm, is a longtime Kerry supporter who was the chief liaison to Congress during Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. He did not return a call seeking comment.
Cal Dallas, Alberta’s minister of international and intergovernmental relations, said in a telephone interview that he would not discount “the potential value” of hiring former Kerry aides. But he added that Kerry has “clearly demonstrated an ability to strip away the rhetoric and the lobby positioning and look at the science, look at the facts, in key decisions that he’s been involved in.”
In 2009, Kerry crafted the Senate’s most ambitious response to threats of climate change, legislation that would have established a cap-and-trade system on US emissions of greenhouse gases. The legislation failed, despite several compromises that Kerry made to big energy companies, concessions that spurred criticism from environmental groups.
Some phases of the Keystone project, which was first proposed in 2005 by a company called TransCanada, exist or have been underway. The most controversial portion — called Keystone XL — would connect Alberta to Steele City, Neb.
There are efforts in Congress to speed the pipeline approval. The House last Wednesday voted, 241 to 175, in a largely symbolic measure to demonstrate support for the pipeline.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid is likely to stifle any effort to bring similar legislation to a vote, even though several Democrats support the pipeline.
Kerry voted against legislation in March 2012 that would have made it easier to build the Keystone pipeline by eliminating the need for a federal permit to cross the US-Canadian border. But he never mentioned the pipeline during Senate debates, according to a Globe review of the congressional record. The measure was four votes shy of the 60 needed for approval.
Last month, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Kerry declined to discuss his view about the pipeline.
“I am staying as far away from that as I can now so that when the appropriate time comes to me, I am not getting information from any place I shouldn’t be,” Kerry said.
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.