BOSTON - Environmental activists are vowing to do everything they can to help Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful Edward Markey in his special election battle with Republican challenger Gabriel Gomez.
During the Democratic primary, environmental groups spent nearly $1.8 million in outside money to help Markey defeat Stephen Lynch.
Markey and Lynch had agreed to the so-called People's Pledge, which discouraged outside groups from launching television, radio or Internet campaign ads. That forced the groups to spend most of their money on organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts.
But Gomez has rejected the pledge, allowing environmental and other groups on both sides to pour millions into ads if they want.
For many environmental advocates, the most pressing issue is the fate of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which Markey opposes but Gomez supports.
President Barack Obama is considering whether to approve the pipeline, which would carry 800,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada across six U.S. states to the Texas Gulf Coast. A decision is expected this summer.
Opponents say the pipeline poses an environmental risk, but supporters say it will create desperately needed jobs.
The pipeline is the top concern for the NextGen Committee, which spent $887,452 during the primary to defeat Lynch. The group is backed by California billionaire Thomas Steyer.
Without access to more traditional advertising methods during the primary, the committee spent more than a third of its money on airplane banners. The group paid to have an airplane trail a banner that read: "Steve Lynch says: Go Habs! And Go Canadian Dirty Oil."
"Habs" is the nickname for the Montreal Canadiens. The banner was flown ahead of matchup between the two hockey teams. Lynch, a die-hard Boston Bruins fan, cried foul.
A spokesman for the group said they're discussing options for television and radio ads with their local partners in the general election, but are committed either way to helping Markey defeat Gomez, given the clear differences between the two.
"The more we learn about Gomez, the more he looks like Mitt Romney without the experience," NextGen Committee spokesman Chris LeHane said in a statement.
The League of Conservation Voters spent nearly as much as NextGen in the Democratic primary, $830,932, to ensure Markey's victory.
Jeff Gohringer, a spokesman for the group, said while they were encouraged by Markey's primary win, they're taking nothing for granted.
Gohringer said the group's support for Markey goes beyond his opposition to the Keystone pipeline. He called Markey "an environmental hero" and pointed to what he described as Markey's more than three decades in Congress fighting for environmental causes and combating climate change.
"This is the most important race this year for us," Gohringer said.
During the primary, the group spent much of its money on organizing a field canvassing operation designed to help ensure Markey supporters made it to the polls.
Gohringer said that strategy could expand to including advertising during the general election.
"We're not going to advertise our political strategy, but there's no People's Pledge, so we are going to do everything we can to elect Markey," he said.
On his campaign website, Gomez explained his support for allowing the oil pipeline to be built.
"I will work with President Obama when he is right, and will oppose him when he is wrong," Gomez said. "The Obama administration is wrong in stopping the Keystone pipeline, a project that will create jobs, drive down our energy costs, and help us to become energy independent."
Gomez said that while he believes climate change is real, addressing the problem must be done rationally.
"Unfortunately, many solutions offered by politicians in Washington are not rational, and would put America at a competitive disadvantage," he said. "We need a serious energy agenda that promotes private sector innovation in both the United States and in other countries."
During his campaign, Markey has pointed to what he said was his strong environmental record, including pushing for tougher efficiency standards for household appliances and pressing to set goals to dramatically reduce greenhouse gases.
When oil began spilling into the Gulf of Mexico following an explosion on an offshore rig operated by BP, Markey forced the company to make live video footage of the spill available on a public "Spillcam" website, a move praised by environmentalists.
A third group, the 350.org Action Fund, is focused on what it calls the "climate crisis" as its top issue.
During the primary, the group spent $49,985 to support Markey. The bulk of that went to helping organize young people and college students concerned about climate change, according to Ben Wessel, the group's Massachusetts campaign manager.
Wessel says he expects to see the same level of enthusiasm in the Markey/Gomez contest, even though the election falls on June 25, when many college students have left town. He said the group is pushing to make sure students vote by absentee ballot even if they are out of the state.
Wessel said the election is the first time the group has endorsed a candidate and become involved in electoral politics. He said many of the group's supporters have also pushed for their colleges to divest from oil companies and the "fossil fuel" industry.
"We have a different role to play," Wessel said. "We have legions of volunteers across the state who are willing to get out into the streets."