Now that the State Department has weighed in with a mostly favorable review, environmental concerns are unlikely to stop the massive Keystone XL oil pipeline — but there remains an even greater hurdle: politics.
The State Department's review, released last week, found that the $7 billion, Canada-to-Texas project would have little or no bearing on climate change — and bipartisan supporters of the politically charged pipeline argue that, after five years of delays, President Obama now is out of excuses and must approve it immediately.
But the president's allies in the environmental community have only intensified their opposition over the past several days and continue to charge that Mr. Obama's legacy on global warming, a central issue for this White House, rests largely with his decision on the pipeline.
That's brought analysts and backers of the project to the conclusion that if the president blocks Keystone and the energy security and more than 40,000 jobs that come with it, base politics and a desire to appease environmentalists will be to blame.
"The writing is on the wall. This thing is over. It's just a matter of whether politics is going to continue to delay it," said Brigham McCown, former administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, an arm of the federal Transportation Department. "Most of the opposition hinged on this environmental piece. Now that that has been debunked, it's much harder for Keystone opponents to raise credible arguments against the project."
But the administration has pushed back hard against the notion that Keystone, which would carry more than 800,000 barrels of oil each day from Alberta through the U.S. heartland and ultimately to refineries on the Gulf Coast, is now on the fast track to approval.
Immediately after releasing its final environmental impact study of the project, the State Department cautioned against drawing clear conclusions from the report and stressed that there remains much work to be done.
The study did not include a final recommendation of whether the pipeline is in the "national interest," a key equation that encompasses not only carbon emissions and climate change concerns but also the jobs the project would create and the overall national security benefits of getting more fuel from friendly Canada rather than the Middle East, among other considerations,
The report now enters a public comment period, after which the department will issue its national-interest determination. At that point, Mr. Obama will make the final call.
Until then, the White House is saying virtually nothing, other than denying that politics will play a role in the president's eventual decision.
"He's very clear that he's going to insulate this process from politics," said White House chief of staff Denis McDonough during an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "We have one department with a study. Now we have other expert agencies, the [Environmental Protection Agency] and many others, the Energy Department, who have an opportunity to look at this and make their determination. The president wants to protect their ability to do that, make this decision based on the best analysis and most sound science."
Keystone proponents are sure to be frustrated by Mr. McDonough's comments. They've waited more than five years — the entirety of Mr. Obama's presidency — for a decision on the pipeline and endured multiple studies, revisions of the pipeline's route to avoid environmentally sensitive areas in Nebraska and other delays.
Up to this point, Mr. Obama has said little of the pipeline, other than the fact that it can be approved only if it does not "significantly exacerbate" American greenhouse gas emissions and, subsequently, climate change.
While the State Department did conclude that the type of heavy crude oil that would flow through Keystone is about 17 percent more "carbon-intensive" than other types of oil, it also found that the project will have little or no impact on the overall crude oil market in North America since the fuel surely will be extracted and moved to market even if the pipeline is denied.
"The Canadians are going to go get this oil. The question is whether they send it to us or to the Chinese. I'd rather it come here to America," said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a strong supporter of Keystone, during an interview on CNN's "State of the Union" program on Sunday.
Indeed, the State Department's latest review backs up the bipartisan argument that Keystone won't have a measurable environmental impact.
"Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States based on expected prices, oil-sands supply costs, transport costs and supply-demand scenarios," says the study.
Environmentalists, however, see things much differently. Leading environmental activists argue that the study actually bolsters their case, thanks in large part to its conclusion that the Canadian oil is, in fact, more carbon-intensive than other forms of crude oil and therefore would result in more greenhouse-gas emissions.
They're calling on Mr. Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry to squash Keystone once and for all. Environmentalists also have contended that Mr. Obama risks undoing all the climate-change progress he's made — which has included limiting carbon emissions from power plants, instituting new fuel-economy standards and other steps — if he approves Keystone.
"It's clear after just glancing at this report that it does give everything President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry need to reject the Keystone pipeline outright," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club and a leading Keystone critic. "The president has a choice ... the president can approve the pipeline and give a windfall to the oil industry or he can live up to his promise and commit to a clean-energy economy for all Americans."
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