WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Tuesday that his approval or rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline will hinge on whether the project would mean a big increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
Environmental groups heralded that statement, which was the first time the White House directly tied the pipeline decision to the larger issue of global climate change.
“Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation's interests,” Obama said. “Our national interest would be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline's impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.”
Keystone critics say Obama now must reject the pipeline because there's no way to avoid increasing greenhouse gases with a project that would carry more than 800,000 barrels of crude a day, running from Canada's oil sands to Texas refineries.
“Any third-grader knows developing tar-sands increases greenhouse gas emissions,” said Jane Kleeb, executive director of the environmental advocacy group Bold Nebraska.
But the company behind the project, TransCanada, and other proponents seized on State Department studies stating that the project would have a negligible net effect on emissions and climate change.
That finding was based on the premise that the oil sands will be developed regardless of whether the pipeline is built and that transporting oil by pipeline creates less carbon pollution than alternative methods such as truck or rail.
“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 criteria are satisfied,” Russ Girling, president and CEO of TransCanada, said in a press release.
Backers on Capitol Hill took a similar line.
“It's a standard already met, Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said after hearing of Obama's pipeline comments. “It looks to me like this is good to go.”
Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., a Keystone XL champion, also pointed to the State Department studies as meeting the president's standard, but Terry worried that just having the pipeline mentioned in a speech about climate change could be a bad sign for the project.
“If I just took that sentence alone I would say he's going to sign it tomorrow,” Terry said.
“But in the context of his overall speech, I gain no confidence from his statement.”
Because the pipeline crosses an international border, it requires a presidential permit, and the review process is handled by the State Department.
Pipeline proponents have said the review process already has taken too long. Last month, the House approved legislation authored by Terry to force the project's approval. That bill has yet to move forward in the Senate.
The State Department still has to finalize its most recent environmental impact study, which found little effect on climate change from the pipeline. That study has been criticized by advocacy groups and the Environmental Protection Agency, which said it needed to be more thorough. Environmental groups have highlighted ties between the contractor that prepared the study and the oil industry.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said that under the standard Obama laid out in his speech for Keystone XL, the pipeline can't be approved.
“I mean, it's awesome the amount of carbon that will put into the atmosphere. It makes coal-fired plants look like nothing,” Harkin said. “He's not going to approve it if he accepts science.”