To Keystone or Not to Keystone: Obama Says It Depends

ObamaWhether President Barack Obama will approve the Keystone XL pipeline comes down to a simple exercise in greenhouse gas emissions math. Speaking on the steps of a building on Georgetown University’s campus in Washington D.C., the president said Tuesday that he will ask the State Department not to approve the massive pipeline that would ship crude oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries if its construction would generate more harmful pollutants, a pledge that indicates his administration wants to take more aggressive steps to fight climate change this term.

Obama has previously declined to weigh in on the construction of the Keystone pipeline, pointing instead to an executive order asking the State Department to make a determination on the project’s viability first. But that has not stopped political controversy from growing. Environmental groups have called for the president to have the project shelved because of the pipeline’s potential to contribute to global warming and contaminate drinking water in the event of a leak. But some conservatives and labor groups have argued that the project will boost the economy by creating jobs.

In his speech, the president acknowledged this controversy. However, he put more emphasis on the environmental effects of the pipeline, describing what can be called a new test of the Keystone pipeline project as part of his generation’s moral obligation to protect the planet.

“As a president, as a father, I’m here to say we need to act,” he said, his words followed by loud applause from an audience that included college students and other supporters. ”I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.

“Our national interest will be served only if this pipeline does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem,” he continued. The question of the pipeline’s construction causing more environmental damage than using railroad transportation or another method to move crude oil from Canada to U.S. refineries is still under review by the State Department. “The net effects of climate impact will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project will go forward,” Obama said. “It is relevant.”

A senior official told the Washington Post that the administration would consider vetoing the project depending on the outcome of the review.

The idea of moral obligation is also the guiding sentiment of  Obama’s Climate Action Plan, a fact sheet released by the White House on Tuesday. Included in his remarks on the pipeline was an explanation of new initiatives aimed at climate change. Those initiatives were more fully fleshed out in another recently released fact sheet, and outlines the president’s plan to cut carbon emissions.

Because his administration is taking a somewhat piecemeal approach to energy and the environment, the list of policies Obama outlined Tuesday — some new and some that build on existing programs — reflected both opportunities and challenges the president will encounter throughout the rest of his second term.

As Jeffrey Holmstead, who led the Environmental Protection Agency’s air and radiation office under President George W. Bush, told the Post, the “White House faces a challenge because there’s not a single, big, bold action that shows they can deal with climate change.” Instead, the administration has been forced to draw out an agenda based on a series of varied initiatives, a move some environmental groups have applauded. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) questioned that support, calling Obama’s proposals “unilateral economic surrender.”

Still, Obama has already invoked his executive authority to impose the first carbon limits on existing power plants as part of his laundry list of initiatives lined up for the next few years. He instructed the EPA to issue a proposed rule to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal and gas-fired utilities by June 2014 and to finalize that regulation the following year. But it remains unclear how the agency will meet that mandate and what it will cost the industry. Individuals familiar with the agency’s plans said the the EPA has not started drafting the rule.

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