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Keystone XL pipeline clears significant hurdle

Environmental activists now fear Obama approval

Crews worked in 2012 on construction of the Keystone XL pipeline near Winona, Texas.

Associated Press/File 2012

Crews worked in 2012 on construction of the Keystone XL pipeline near Winona, Texas.

WASHINGTON — The State Department released a report Friday that could pave the way toward President Obama’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The long-awaited environmental impact statement on the project concludes that approval or denial of the pipeline, which would carry 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, is unlikely to prompt oil companies to change the rate of their extraction of carbon-heavy tar sands oil, a State Department official said. Either way, the tar sands oil, which produces significantly more planet-warming carbon pollution than standard methods of drilling, is coming out of the ground, the report says.

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In his second term, Obama has sought to make his fight against climate change a cornerstone of his legacy. In a major speech on the environment last summer, Obama said that he would approve the pipeline only if it would not “significantly exacerbate” the problem of carbon pollution. He said the pipeline’s net effects on the climate would be “absolutely critical” to his decision.

The conclusions of the report appear to indicate that the project has passed Obama’s climate criteria, an outcome expected to outrage environmentalists, who have rallied, protested, marched, and been arrested in demonstrations around the country.

The project, which has been under review by the State Department since 2008, has become a political lightning rod for both the left and the right. Environmentalists rallying for action on climate change have seized on the pipeline plan as a potent symbol of fossil fuel projects that contribute to global warming.

Republicans and the oil industry point to the Keystone project as a symbol of energy independence and job creation, and they have repeatedly attacked Obama for not yet approving a project that could create thousands of jobs.

The report released Friday, however, is far from the final decision on the project. The State Department must next determine whether the pipeline is in the national interest. That involves taking into account both the environmental and economic impact of the project as well as its impact on the relationship between the United States and Canada, the nation’s largest trading partner and largest source of foreign oil.

Although Secretary of State John Kerry must weigh in with a recommendation to the president on whether to approve the pipeline, it is the president who must make the ultimate decision.

Nonetheless, the assignment creates a difficult situation for Kerry, who has a long record of trying to tackle climate change and hopes to make the issue a signature of his tenure at the State Department.

Kerry has repeatedly been asked about his views on the pipeline but has never publicly commented on it. He has no deadline to make the determination. A State Department official said he was preparing to “dive in” to the 11-volume environmental impact statement as a first step.

Eight other agencies with jurisdiction over elements of the project — the Departments of Defense, Justice, Interior, Commerce, Transportation, Energy, and Homeland Security, and the Environmental Protection Agency — will also weigh in.

There are political and strategic advantages to approving the pipeline: It would strengthen relations with Canada and provide a conduit for oil from a friendly neighbor. If the pipeline is approved this year, it could also give a boost to the reelection campaigns of two vulnerable Democratic senators from oil-rich states — Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Begich of Alaska — while silencing critics who for years have pressed the president about the pipeline.

But environmentalists say that if Obama were to approve the pipeline, it would destroy his efforts to make progress on climate change.

Tom Steyer, a billionaire from California and a major donor to Obama’s presidential campaigns, has started an advocacy group, Next Generation, that has spent heavily to campaign against the pipeline.

Larry Schweiger, the president of the National Wildlife Federation, said: “This is a large source of carbon that’s going to be unleashed. We’re headed in a terribly wrong direction with this project, and I don’t see how that large increase in carbon is going to be offset.”

Although the pipeline is a potent political symbol, its true impact on both the environment and the economy would be more limited than either its supporters or its opponents suggest.

The new State Department report concludes that the process of extracting and burning tar sands oil creates about 17 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than traditional oil but that the heavily polluting oil will be brought to market with or without the pipeline.

“It’s unlikely for one pipeline to change the overall development of the oil sands,” a State Department official said.

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