President Obama's Inauguration Day vow to fight climate change is facing an unexpectedly early test as a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline now rests solely with his administration.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman on Tuesday removed the only other remaining hurdle by formally approving the pipeline's modified 194-mile route through his state, skirting sensitive ecological areas and clearing up the last major question mark on the course of the proposed $7 billion Canada-to-Texas project.
"Construction and operation of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline ... would have minimal environmental impacts in Nebraska," Mr. Heineman, a Republican, said in a letter to Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, detailing how the updated route avoids the state's most environmentally sensitive areas. The State Department must approve the project because it crosses the border with Canada.
The pipeline would transport oil from Canadian oil sands through the U.S. en route to Gulf Coast refineries, providing a major impetus toward North American energy independence. Nebraska and other states also would see immediate financial dividends; Mr. Heineman cited nearly $420 million in economic benefits just from the pipeline's construction. Thousands of jobs also would be created, and additional tax revenue would pour into the state each year until at least 2030.
But environmental groups remain vehemently opposed to the project, and they are greatly encouraged by Mr. Obama's recent pledge to battle climate change, seeing it as a possible sign that he will block the pipeline. Despite heavy pressure from presidential challenger Mitt Romney and other Republicans, Mr. Obama last year effectively put off a decision on Keystone until after the 2012 election.
"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," the president said during his inaugural address Monday. "The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But American cannot resist this transition. We must lead it."
The pipeline, critics argue, would contribute significantly to climate change by promoting the use of fossil fuels and producing carbon emissions.
Reducing those emissions is a top priority for the Obama administration and for other world leaders. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this week said that one of his top goals for the year is to reach a global agreement on climate change.
"The world is now experiencing unprecedented challenges. Climate change is fast happening — much, much faster than one would have expected. Climate and ecosystems are under growing strain," Mr. Ban told The Associated Press. "I will do my best to mobilize the political will and resources so that the member states [of the U.N.] can agree to a new legally binding global agreement on climate change."
While the Obama administration surely will find willing partners around the world in the fight against climate change, it faces a harder time closer to home. In fact, congressional Republicans wasted no time Tuesday in pressuring the president to approve the Keystone pipeline immediately.
"Every state along the proposed route supports this project, as does a bipartisan coalition in Congress and a majority of Americans," House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said in a statement. "I recognize all the political pressure the president faces, but with our energy security at stake and many jobs in limbo, he should find a way to say yes."
Republican leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee promised to "fight tooth and nail for this pipeline" in the coming months.
It's unclear when Mr. Obama will make a decision on the project, or when the State Department will release its findings. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that it is unlikely the department will complete its review before the end of March.
Asked about Nebraska's decision to endorse a new route, White House spokesman Jay Carney deferred questions to the State Department.
"For now, the State Department has the reins," he said.
To combat climate change and at least partly satisfy the environmental movement, Mr. Obama has other options beyond rejecting the Keystone pipeline.
Supporters expect him to double down on federal investments in renewable energy, such as wind and solar power. Such investments created a hallmark of Mr. Obama's first term.
The president's Environmental Protection Agency also will play a key role over the next four years, having laid the groundwork for dramatic reductions in carbon emissions.
One of the most significant steps was an EPA regulation that effectively blocked the construction of new coal-fired power plants by imposing carbon emission standards that are virtually impossible to achieve with current, financially viable technology.
Existing plants aren't subject to those rules, but that soon may change. The EPA is expected to expand the regulation to all power plants, leaving operators with two unattractive options: spend millions of dollars to meet the emissions standards or close up shop.
"If you're telling all of these plants they have to revamp or shut down to meet new regulations, they will inevitably begin the process of applying to shut down," said Kenneth von Schaumburg, a Washington lawyer and deputy general counsel at the EPA during the George W. Bush administration.
"They're not going to be able to reasonably recoup the costs of the necessary upgrades and retrofits. As additional power users come on line, and you have same or less power being generated, you end up with an unreliable [power] grid and more blackouts and brownouts," he said.
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