Obama Won't Approve Keystone Pipeline Unless It Passes New Test

Amy Harder
National Journal

President Obama told hundreds of climate change advocates on Tuesday that he will not approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline if it “significantly exacerbated the problem of carbon pollution," a move that's expected to excite environmental activists.

The comments prompted cheers from the crowd who had assembled at Georgetown University on a humid 90-degree day in Washington to listen to the most substantive speech Obama has given on climate change as president.

“The net effects of climate impact will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward,” Obama said.

The president’s comments represent a political shift. His top aides have repeatedly said the White House was not interjecting itself in a process reviewing the project that is underway at the State Department. By stressing the climate change impacts of the pipeline, Obama is acknowledging the concerns of environmentalists.

Moments later, however, Obama also sought to downplay the impact one pipeline has on global warming. “It certainly has to be about more than building one pipeline,” said Obama, drawing muffled, quieter cheers than his comments on the project.

The pipeline, which would send carbon-heavy oil sands more than a thousand miles from Alberta to Texas, is currently facing a review from the State Department that is not expected to be done until later this year.

The State Department has already concluded the climate change impact of the pipeline would be negligible. According to a draft environmental assessment released earlier this year, the State Department said that “if the proposed Project were to induce growth in the rate of extraction in the oil sands, then it could cause GHG emissions greater than just its direct emissions.” The very next paragraph concluded that “approval or denial of the proposed Project is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development of the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude oil refined in the Gulf Coast area.”

In a statement criticizing the administration's posturing, House Speaker John Boehner's office noted that passage as reason that Obama should green light the Keystone project, which has faced years of regulatory and political delays.

“The standard the president set today should lead to speedy approval of the Keystone pipeline,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said in a statement after Obama’s speech. “Based on the lengthy review by the State Department, construction of the pipeline would not have a significant environmental impact.  It’s time to sign off on Keystone and put Americans to work.”