5 july 2013

Obama’s Remarks Offer Hope to Opponents of Oil Pipeline

President Obama discussed climate change and the Keystone XL pipeline in a speech at Georgetown University on June 25.

By JOHN M. BRODER in the New York Times,July 5, 2013

WASHINGTON — The political ground may be shifting under the Keystone XL pipeline

Just weeks ago, the smart money in Washington had President Obama approving the cross-border oil pipeline later this year, perhaps balanced with a package of unrelated climate change measures. The seemingly inevitable decision would leave the pipeline’s opponents — a group that includes a large number of Mr. Obama’s most ardent supporters and generous donors — dispirited and disillusioned by what one called the president’s half-a-loaf centrism.

But Mr. Obama threw that calculation into doubt last week when he unexpectedly added a brief passage on the pipeline project to a major address laying out his second-term climate change agenda. Mr. Obama said he would approve the remaining portion of the 1,700-mile pipeline from Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries only if it would not “significantly exacerbate” the problem of carbon pollution. He added that the pipeline’s net effects on the climate would be “absolutely critical” to his decision whether to allow it to proceed.

The president had never before attached such explicit climate-related conditions to the fate of the project.

The project’s opponents were thrilled, saying the president had finally recognized the threat to the global climate posed by the pipeline and the accompanying expansion of Canadian oil sands development. They also crowed that citizen activism and vocal opposition by many of the president’s strongest supporters had altered the political calculus.

They may be celebrating too soon, but for now the president has given them reason for hope.

Bill McKibben, the founder of the environmental advocacy group 350.org and the organizer of numerous anti-Keystone protests, said he was surprised and encouraged by the president’s remarks.

“Surprised because he’s been utterly closed-mouthed about it all along. Encouraged because he nailed the central issue,” said Mr. McKibben, a professor at Middlebury College and perhaps the nation’s most effective grass-roots environmental advocate. He has been arrested twice protesting the pipeline outside the White House.

He said the conventional wisdom about Mr. Obama’s decision had been turned on its head by a succession of extreme weather events, including Hurricane Sandy, which made it impossible to ignore the effects of pumping ever-increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. He said politics was finally catching up with reality, spelling doom for the pipeline.

“Everybody’s told me over and over and over again it’s a done deal, it’s going to happen, how childish it is for everyone to protest it,” Mr. McKibben said by telephone from his home in the Adirondacks. “But it never seemed like a done deal to me because it’s so illogical. This is the dirtiest oil anyone has ever managed to find on the face of the earth, and it’s always seemed to me that given even a remotely fair hearing people would figure that out.”

White House officials cautioned that the president was still a long way from a decision on the pipeline, currently under review by the State Department, which has jurisdiction over infrastructure projects that cross national borders. Secretary of State John Kerry, a longtime champion of strong domestic and international action on climate change, has been studiously silent on the project.

“The secretary will make the decision based on the facts and after the department has completed the established process,” said a State Department spokeswoman, Jennifer Psaki.

White House officials cautioned against overinterpreting the president’s remarks. Mr. Obama had not focused intently on the controversy up to now, but felt compelled to address it in the context of the broad climate change initiative he announced last week, advisers said.

A White House aide, who declined to be identified discussing a matter still under high-level review, said no one had yet defined what the president’s term “significantly exacerbate” meant in the context of the pipeline.

The president was not tipping his hand one way or the other, the aide said. “It was actually fascinating to see folks speculate on the impact of what the president was trying to do,” the aide said. “All we did, really, was raise the bar here.”

The State Department’s most recent environmental assessment of Keystone concluded that the pipeline would not result in a major increase in carbon emissions.

The report said that the oil would be extracted whether the pipeline was built or not, and that it could be transported by other, more carbon-intensive means like trucks or rail cars in the absence of Keystone.

Critics say that is an unrealistic conclusion, citing studies saying Canada does not currently have the rail or highway capacity to move the 830,000 barrels of oil a day that Keystone XL is designed to carry.

The president’s remarks could also foreshadow a demand that the companies mining and transporting the Albertan crude take additional steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a condition of approval of the pipeline. The Canadian government, oil companies and TransCanada, the company proposing to build the pipeline, say they are already taking steps to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of oil sands development and transport.

It is not clear whether additional measures may be required, or if the State Department simply must revise its environmental assessment to explore the climate change impact of the project more deeply to satisfy the president’s conditions.

Several groups opposing the pipeline demanded last week that the State Department redo the environmental report, citing new studies that contend that rejection of the pipeline would slow oil sands development because there are few workable transport alternatives.

The groups also said the State Department had underestimated the overall greenhouse gas emissions of the project.

Analysts said the president’s language was artful, giving his green supporters something to cheer about while not committing him to any conditions not already required to be met by the review process.

And the comments were embedded in a speech that gave environmental advocates most of what they were demanding on climate change, including the first-ever carbon limits on new and existing power plants.

Kevin Book, director of research for ClearView Energy Partners, a research and consulting company, said the president’s words — particularly “significantly” and “net effects” — had been carefully chosen and left open much room for interpretation.

“The administration up to now has been sending very strong signals of a pathway to yes on the pipeline,” Mr. Book said. “But with these comments, the president has maintained his options.”

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