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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.

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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.