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The White House Sends Troubling Signals About Its First Climate Test: Keystone XL | The Nation

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George Zornick

George Zornick

Action and dysfunction in the Beltway swamp. E-mail tips to george@thenation.com

The White House Sends Troubling Signals About Its First Climate Test: Keystone XL


Demonstrators rally against the Keystone XL pipeline in front of the White House on Nov. 6, 2011. (Reuters/Joshua Roberts.)

Addressing climate change was—quite remarkably—the most prominent policy vow President Obama made yesterday on the steps of the US Capitol Building. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” he proclaimed.

The administration’s resolve on this issue will be tested quickly, when the Keystone XL pipeline comes up for review once again. Obama denied approval for the project in January 2012 over concerns it would damage Nebraska’s Ogalalla Aquifer, but allowed TransCanada to reapply for a permit with a different route, which it has done. A re-review of the project from the State Department may now be coming within the next few weeks.

It’s notable that the White House initially denied the project based on the logic that it might be bad for certain Nebraskans—not that it would pump unacceptable levels of carbon pollution into the air. (Which it would: NASA’s James Hansen has said “it’s basically game over” for climate change if the project goes ahead, and a new report released last week says it’s worse than we thought—the likely greenhouse gas emissions would be 13 percent higher than what the State Department originally estimated, according to the authors).

So will Obama’s new and ostensibly bold direction on climate change mean denying the project again, this time making explicit the harmful greenhouse gas argument? Or will the project be approved now that the pipeline has been rerouted around that aquifer?

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney’s answer to a reporter’s question this afternoon offers virtually no comfort to environmentalists and pipeline opponents. When asked about the Republican governor of Nebraska, a former pipeline opponent, who blessed the project today now that it’s been re-routed, Carney said:

It’s interesting—you mention the Nebraska governor. This whole process, as you remember, got sort of derailed because of insistence on sort of politicizing something that was not political. It was a process that followed the format that had been used in the past in terms of the State Department’s role in approving these types of pipelines when they cross international boundaries. One of the things that delayed or postponed this process had to do with the opposition of the Nebraska governor and others in that state to the route Keystone was proposed to take, the pipeline was proposed to take, so I think that’s just an instructive reminder about how this ended up where it is now.

Well, yes, that is instructive. Carney appears to be preparing reporters for an approval of the project. He singled out the governor’s opposition as the key obstacle, and one that has been overcome. By slapping at the idea it was a “political” decision, Carney seems to be suggesting that the uproar and protests by environmentalists—and ensuing accusations by Republicans that the project was denied in deference to them—was all a sideshow, and that the real problem was one that has now been figured out.

Approving the pipeline would cripple any notion the White House is actually serious about addressing climate change. White House aides have said Obama’s planned action on climate change will be an “aggressive campaign built around the use of his executive powers to sidestep congressional opposition,” and so this is the perfect test case for that approach. Obama can deny the project without consulting Congress at all. The political costs to killing the project are likely to be low as well. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, along with congressional Republicans, endlessly hammered Obama this summer and fall for denying the project—to no measurable effect in November.

In short, there really isn’t any excuse, and the decision will no doubt be considered an early litmus test of the administration’s seriousness about tackling global warming. Senator Bernie Sanders, who also wants Obama to push for legislative action on climate change, said in a statement today that “the president can, and must, move aggressively to use executive powers to reduce pollution and reject harmful projects like the Keystone XL pipeline.”

UPDATE: Late Tuesday, the State Department announced the environmental review wouldn't be completed in the first quarter of 2013, so no decision could be made before April 1, at the earliest. 

Young people have taken a leading hand in fighting approval of the Keystone pipeline, and activists stormed TransCanada offices across the country earlier this month.

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