Obama Will Approve Keystone Only If It ‘Does Not Significantly Exacerbate’ Carbon Pollution [UPDATED]

Could President Obama be leaning toward rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline? Huffington Post’s Sam Stein reported less than a half hour before the speech:

President Barack Obama will ask the State Department not to approve the construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline unless it can first determine that it will not lead to a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions, a senior administration official told The Huffington Post.

Juliet Eilperin clairified via Twitter, saying that the pipeline “won’t be approved if it would emit more GhG [greenhouse gases] than not building it.”

Here is what the president actually said about Keystone:

I know there’s been, for example, a lot of controversy surrounding the proposal to build a pipeline — the Keystone pipeline, that would carry oil from Canadian tar sands down to refineries in the Gulf. The State Department is going through the final stages of evaluating the proposal. That’s how it’s always been done.

But I do want to be clear. Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will 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. It’s relevant.

This is closer to what the Administration has said in the past on Keystone approval, though President Obama was clearer. If the process determines that the pipeline causes more emissions, he said it would not be in our nation’s interest. Today’s speech was supposed to avoid Keystone altogether. Senior administration officials responded to questions about the pipeline on Thursday with the usual answer: they were waiting for the State Department to complete its process. This process is key.

Earlier this year, the State Department released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) written by a consulting firm paid by TransCanada, the company trying to get the pipeline built. After a public comment period which ended in April, State is reviewing those comments and will release a Final EIS later this year.

One notable public comment was submitted by the EPA, which said that the draft EIS had “insufficient information” and needed to go back to the drawing board. It also questioned the report’s conclusion that the extraction of tar sands is inevitable.

After the Final EIS is released, then the administration will determine whether the project is in our national interest — which is where the President’s comments come into play.

There are still open questions:

Could this be a simple restatement of typical Administration policy on Keystone? The State Department concluded that the pipeline would lead to no new greenhouse gas emissions because it assumed that the tar sands oil would be extracted pipeline or no. Many other experts concluded that this was not the case – transporting tar sands by train is expensive and not feasible.

Will they determine that offsets are adequate emissions reductions? If TransCanada purchased offsets somewhere else that were carbon-negative, in theory they could argue that building the Keystone XL pipeline would not not lead to a net increase in emissions.

Would the “net” extend to emissions outside of the U.S.? The State Department could argue that any oil exported from the U.S. should not be counted in the determination of whether the pipeline would increase greenhouse gas emissions. Building the pipeline and burning the oil is certainly more carbon-intensive than not doing that, but it all depends on where the borders are drawn around which emissions.

This post was updated to reflect President Obama’s comments during his speech.

30 Responses to Obama Will Approve Keystone Only If It ‘Does Not Significantly Exacerbate’ Carbon Pollution [UPDATED]

  1. Ominous Clouds Overhead says:

    What’s to say he doesn’t soon get an “expert” opinion that says it won’t cause more emissions? This could still go both ways, in my pessimistic opinion.

  2. Paul Magnus says:

    All fossil fuel expansion should be rejected where possible even if it does not significantly contribute to GW.

    KXL for example, aside from the horror of its extraction and gross carbon footprint, is mainly about profit and should be curtailed.

    Lets face it. If subsidies and rule of law and democracy were respected the KXL pipe would not be viable.

    The use of eminent domain for KXL is surely wrong for instance. The fact that that oil is not being priced on its carbon footprint is wrong. It is in fact going to a tax exempt region for processing as well.

    The fact that the waste from from the extraction of that tar is just left to accumulate in ponds for future generations (if they are around) to fix is a subsidy and wrong.

    In fact addressing the local issues alone apart from the carbon tax would price this oil out of the market.

    Go for a walk with Bill McKibben

  3. Paul Magnus says:

    The other biggie is coal export. That is just for profit and its got to be curtailed.

    No sense in reducing it at home and then shipping it off to be burnt.

    Time to just shut down those coal mines and mtn top destruction.

  4. Dan Ives says:

    Obama loves to play word games. This statement sets in motion his plan to sell the KXL as environmentally neutral. Your “Open Questions” section says it all. They will insist that the carbon emissions are inevitable, therefore building the pipeline causes no net change.
    Just watch.

  5. prokaryotes says:

    LOL i managed to miss this speech… :)

  6. Z S says:

    Ah, the administration’s copout on Keystone is already emerging. From the Washington Post article that just went up:

    “According to a senior administration who asked not to be identified because the final decision has not been made, the administration will examine whether vetoing the project–which would mean the oil would likely be shipped by rail—would translate into higher emissions than building it.”

  7. Leif says:

    The ecocide fossil Barons call the KXL an oil pipeline but lobby congress to change the term and not call it oil when it comes to cleaning spills. Then it becomes the problem of “We the People.” In fact Dilbit is a cousin of creosote in that it is coal tar and thinners. The fossil Barons refuse to even tell what “thinners” are used. Stop profits from the pollution of the commons.

  8. harold says:

    It’s mixed with thinner oil.

  9. Colorado Bob says:

    As for the mines themselves , we’re only one storm away from an image like this –

  10. prokaryotes says:

    When i browse to Google News i see 1 item under U.S. from FOX News…. “Obama orders new rules on coal-fired plants, sets condition for Keystone pipeline”

  11. prokaryotes says:

    Sp i click on that panel and there is this item

    “Opinion: Lomborg: Obama should confront climate change fantasies”

  12. Jeff Huggins says:

    Sending a “bold signal” of American action and “leadership” on global warming to the rest of the world! How? By assuring us that the Keystone XL pipeline will only be approved if the U.S. State Department feels that it will not add any net emissions relative to the case if it weren’t built!

    That’s bold, for ya!

    Get out the calculators, the nuances, the assumptions, the rationalizations, and so on — and forget what leadership really means — and let’s all try to guess (as usual) where this one is heading.

  13. mulp says:

    Too much emphasis has been placed on the Keystone XL Pipeline as if environmentalists were being advised by Karl Rove on how to drive a wedge among Democrats and unify the Republican party in opposition to Democrats.

    This is the stupid silver bullet strategy of activists:

    if only we elect a good dictator, we can vote Republican to get tax cuts and cheap gas while saving the planet.

    if only we kill the KXL, they will stop mining the tar sands in Canada and the planet will be saved because they are just accumulating massive amounts of oil up in Canada they can’t get out of Canada today

    if we blame the Koch brothers we don’t need to take responsibility for voting Republican because we want tax cuts, or not voting for member of legislatures because Clinton signed DOMA and DADT and we will punish Clinton

    The environmental and trade acts were not intended to be used for what is ultimately a purely symbolic and pointless greenie protest victory or defeat.

    Does anyone think Obama denying a permit on a squishy technicality will stop the mining in Canada?

    Obama gave environmentalists the 2012 elections to replace the Republicans in Congress standing the way of a carbon tax and more aggressive set of climate laws from Congress. At best, Obama will give environmentalists only 2014 and 2016 get involved in Congressional elections and turn Congress green – if not, a Republican president will ensure five KXL pipelines are approved crossing the border just to stick it to Obama and environmentalists.

  14. Jeff Huggins says:


    Standing in the heat of the day, airplane noise overhead, mostly ignored by most of the cable news media, receiving modest periodic applause, President Obama delivered an anticlimactic speech on climate change in more ways than one.

    It will be interesting to read what people say. The speech will act as a Rorschach test of sorts. I don’t envy people who are in the position of having to try to write an honest assessment even as they are part of the Democratic establishment or organizations that can’t stray far from it.

    And what about the media? Have they given up on even trying to pretend to cover important events — events that are important for all American citizens to hear?



  15. Joan Savage says:

    It’s not rocket science to conclude that adding distribution capacity would increase GHG emissions per unit time, so that would be a clear thumbs-down on a pipeline that was designed to carry a lot in a hurry.

    As for a day-to-day operational carbon footprint, rail has a higher operating carbon footprint than a pipeline. So it is very-very important to distinguish the overall effect of the decision on GHG emissions, and not just compare the day to day emissions from rail or pipe.

    A surprise move could be to cancel the pipeline, only to move instead towards building and improving rail, with the argument that tracks can carry many products, not just dilbit. The current rails are going to reach dysfunctional sun-kink temperatures more often unless they are replaced with rails tempered for hotter conditions.

    New rail would be a climate change adaptation that doesn’t quite close the door on dilbit, though it squeezes it some, and yet better rail could make it loathsomely easy to move coal.

  16. Joe Romm says:

    I have 100% editorial freedom and I think it was a killer speech, much better than I expected.

  17. BobbyL says:

    Obama finally sounded like the guy we voted for in 2008. But, five years have passed and it is unlikely the lost time can be made up. In 2013 the context is we are almost sure to pass 2C (and sure to pass 450 ppm) and the context now is probably about staying below 4C. At least that is better than the alternative, going beyond 4C. I don’t understand how the State Department can argue that emissions from exported oil should not be counted. Most likely those would be the bulk of the emissions and would be counted as emissions from other countries. Those emissions need to be counted as due to Keystone.

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    He learned casuistry from the experts.

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Are you certain that is all, and how do you know?

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Lomborg- A name that will live in infamy, like ‘FoxNews’.

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The very idea of US ‘leadership’ has become a rather banal, and comic, conceit.

  22. I agree Obama was ambiguous. However, it’s “global” warming, so I believe he is looking at the overall impact – not just within US borders. I think it would just invite derision if he supported a “Yes” on Keystone XL by citing only in-US emissions, and I think Obama knows it.

    I agree that rail is more polluting than a pipeline, but I believe Obama will look at the big picture; the pipeline will increase the speed of development of that “resource” and lead to more emissions.

    I’m not as sure of this as I was of the previous point, but I believe it would still sound ridiculous for Obama to cite trains vs. the pipeline when the role of the pipeline in opening up the tar sands is considered. And I believe he knows this too.

    Obama also challenged all of us to keep pushing him. And by being ambiguous he avoided the trap of discouraging us.

    Let’s stay on it – lobbying, blogging, protesting, voting, donating, talking to friends and neighbors. I believe Obama will reward our efforts with a “no” on Keystone XL. And that our show of strength and success will open the door to additional victories.

  23. BobbyL says:

    The importance of Keystone XL is that it has struck a cord for organizing a climate movement. I think its role with regard to ultimate emissions is much less important than its role as an organizing tool. It has been extremely difficult to organize around the issue of climate change. For some reason trying to stop one pipeline from being built as been more successful than any other strategy so far. Who would have imagined that over 40,000 people would brave the cold and wind to march in a climate protest only a couple of years ago. Thanks to Keystone the climate movement has come a long way. Perhaps Obama’s speech was testament to that.

  24. Superman1 says:

    What makes you believe that once we get to 4 C, we can stay at 4 C? What do you think Kevin Anderson means when he states that 2 C is viewed by many climate experts as Extremely Dangerous? My interpretation means a good chance of the positive feedback mechanisms going on autopilot, and I suspect that won’t even require 2 C, given what we see happening at 0.8 C.

  25. malcreado says:

    Well he does have his out. All he has to say is that the pipeline has lower GHG than transport by rail.
    Words are cheap. It still remains to be seen what his deeds will be.

  26. FWhite says:

    Emissions are one thing. But what about the risk of toxic tar sands oil spills? Don’t they count for anything?

    And despite Joe’s praise for the Obama plan, I still don’t trust the Prez. Ralph Nader didn’t call him the “biggest con man” ever in the White House for nothing.