President Obama on Tuesday used a hyped speech on climate change to signal — with a wink and a nod — that he's likely to approve the $7 billion Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.
On its face, Mr. Obama seemed to take a hard environmental line, declaring that the project will go forward only if it "doesn't significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution" and stressed that the "net effects" on the climate will be the guiding factor as he makes his decision.
But beneath this surface, with his own State Department having already concluded that the Canada-to-Texas pipeline won't significantly boost greenhouse gas emissions, Mr. Obama offered perhaps the clearest sign to date that he's willing to risk the wrath of environmentalists and green-light Keystone.
Republicans, along with the oil and gas industry — including TransCanada Corp., the company proposing the project — were heartened by what they heard from the president during his address at Georgetown University.
"TransCanada is pleased with the president's guidance to the State Department, as the almost five-year review of the project has already repeatedly found that these [environmental and climate] criteria are satisfied," the company said in a statement. "If Keystone XL is not built, it's clear that the oil will move to market by truck, rail and tanker, which will significantly add to global greenhouse gas emissions."
House Speaker John A. Boehner echoed those sentiments.
"The standard the president set today should lead to the speedy approval of the Keystone pipeline," said Brendan Buck, spokesman for the Ohio Republican, a vocal supporter of the project. "Based on the lengthy review by the State Department, construction of the pipeline would have a significant environmental impact. It's time to sign off on Keystone and put Americans to work."
The project, which would carry heavy Canadian crude oil from Alberta through the U.S. heartland to refineries on the Gulf Coast, undoubtedly is the most studied pipeline in history. Federal reviews have been ongoing since Mr. Obama came into office, and pressure to approve Keystone has mounted from all corners over the past five years, including from the Canadian government, desperate to find ways to move its resources to market.
The final word belongs to the State Department, which is expected to finalize an environmental study of the pipeline sometime this summer. A preliminary draft released in March determined that it won't lead to any major increase in greenhouse gas emissions, since the fuel is likely to be extracted, transported and burned whether Keystone is built or not.
There are, for example, proposals to build pipelines from Alberta through western Canada, allowing the oil to be shipped to Asia. The fuel also could be moved by truck or by train.
There's virtually no chance that the oil will remain in the ground, regardless of what happens with Keystone.
"Even if we don't build Keystone XL, the Canadians have made it clear they will sell oil from the oil sands. Some of the highest greenhouse gas emitting countries in the world, like China, are already lining up to purchase this oil if we don't," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican.
A potential wild card in the equation is Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who took over the post from Hillary Rodham Clinton about a month before the draft Keystone review was released in March.
Mr. Kerry for years was one of the loudest voices in Congress on climate and environmental issues, and it's unclear how involved he has been with the finalization of the State Department study.
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