WASHINGTON—President Obama talked for one hour, four minutes and 15 seconds Tuesday night when he delivered his third State of the Union address. He devoted seven of those minutes to how Congress and his administration could and should press forward on energy and environmental issues.
Obama highlighted three issues as ready for immediate action: slashing oil subsidies, crafting a clean energy standard and requiring companies that drill on federal land to disclose the chemicals they pump underground.
Here, InsideClimate News summarizes where each of these topics stands today with Congress or the appropriate regulatory agency.
WASHINGTON—Now that President Obama has at least temporarily quashed the Keystone XL pipeline, TransCanada executives have to be wondering if they really need enemies when their supposed friends, the House Republicans, have placed them in such a financial and strategic bind.
Obama's Wednesday ruling not only means the Calgary-based company will have to reapply for a permit to construct the $7 billion hotly contested Keystone XL. But it has also sent rumblings of doubt through the entire oil industry and into boardrooms of other Canadian energy companies that are worried about progress on their own separate oil sands pipelines.
TransCanada opted not to discuss the Republicans' decision to force the president into giving its project a quick "yes" or "no."
"We are not going to comment on the politics of the Keystone XL application," TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said in an e-mail to InsideClimate News. "That is better left to others."
Fewer than 24 hours after Obama's announcement, TransCanada's chief executive officer Russ Girling assured investors that the permit denial—which he hopes will be reversed next year—should not cause the $60 billion company to fall behind its energy infrastructure competitors.
"Keystone is an important part of our business, but we're a large business," he said Thursday at a conference in Whistler, British Columbia, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. "We've got a lot of things going on right now. Thankfully, all of those other projects are not attracting the same level of attention as Keystone is right now. We’d never get anything done if that were the case."
Shortly after Obama's Wednesday announcement, the value of TransCanada stock shares dropped by as much as 4.8 percent, then rebounded after company officials said they would reapply for a permit. It climbed again Monday, trading at $41.83 per share in New York.
While TransCanada is trying to appear calm, its competitors admit to being flustered.
(Editor's update: On Thursday evening, House Republicans capitulated to mounting pressure from the GOP and President Obama by agreeing to an up-down vote on a measure very similar to the bill the Senate passed last weekend. Briefly, it will allow for a seamless extension of the payroll tax holiday for two months—through February—and still require Obama to give a thumbs up or thumbs down to the controversial Keystone XL pipeline within 60 days.)
WASHINGTON—House Republicans keep trying to give President Obama a political black eye by wielding the 36-inch diameter Keystone XL pipeline as a cudgel just before Christmas.
Instead, they could end up severely maiming only themselves if they persist with end-of-year legislative theatrics at what some are referring to as the "Capitol Hill Playhouse" this week.
"It's quite a sandbox, isn't it?" Pat Parenteau, a Vermont Law School professor who specializes in Congress and environmental issues, told InsideClimate News. "I think their strategy has backfired and that they've roped themselves with this political gambit. This idea that you have to keep introducing ideology into every issue, that will be their undoing."
Parenteau is referring to House Republicans' insistence on gumming up a straightforward bill to extend a payroll tax break for 160 million Americans with language that would force Obama to fast-track approval or denial of the $7 billion, hotly contested pipeline.
WASHINGTON—Nebraskans suspected that somebody on Capitol Hill would try to force the Obama administration to drastically speed up decision-making on the now-delayed Keystone XL pipeline.
They just never figured it would be one of their own.
The chutzpah of Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry in trying to fast track the pipeline has outraged Cornhuskers who labored for years to reroute the fiercely debated $7 billion project out of the environmentally sensitive Sandhills. Some are predicting that the seven-term Republican could be punching himself a one-way ticket out of Washington with this attempted legislative end-run.
"We feel like we're being totally undermined," rancher and farmer Randy Thompson told InsideClimate News. "I don't see how this wouldn't make him vulnerable in the next election. He might be in for a rude awakening in 2012."
House leadership appears intent on rolling Terry's measure into this week's vote on a mega-bill that features the extension of a payroll tax break as its centerpiece. Action could come as early as Tuesday as Congress scurries to wrap up loose ends before a Christmas break.
Terry's North American Energy Access Act sidesteps the State Department, which has authority over the project because the pipeline crosses an international border. Instead, it requires Calgary-based TransCanada to apply for a Keystone XL permit via the independent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission—and give FERC just 30 days to act on the application. That would force the Obama administration to approve or reject the pipeline before the November 2012 presidential election.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said such legislation would be dead on arrival in his chamber. Meanwhile, a carefully treading-President Obama—hesitating to utter the word veto—has vowed to reject the bill if it crosses his desk.
Still, just the thought that Terry, 49, could be so completely tone deaf in his home state fires up Jane Kleeb. The executive director of Bold Nebraska was instrumental in uniting a diverse coalition of farmers, ranchers and environmental organizations.
WASHINGTON—Just six months ago, few could have imagined that an inanimate object as ugly as a 36-inch diameter, 1,702-mile oil sands pipeline could revive a dormant and depressed climate movement.
But then handfuls of activists experienced a series of "aha" moments that resuscitated their cause. First, they connected the dots between the BP oil spill, a do-nothing Congress and the "carbon bomb" that would likely be released if Alberta's tar sands continue to be mined. They also began pressing President Obama on his promise to wean the country of its oil addiction.
Gradually, something began to click. During the summer, more than 1,250 anti-pipeline protesters were arrested during a two-week sit-in at the White House. Hundreds more dogged Obama wherever he traveled across the country. And last Sunday, 10,000-plus flocked to the nation's capital to encircle the eight city blocks around the president's home.
On Thursday afternoon, the newly energized climate activists discovered that the formula they had created had been wildly successful. That's when State Department officials announced that they will delay TransCanada's proposed $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline project while they search for a route that keeps it out of Nebraska's fragile Sandhills landscape and irreplaceable Ogallala Aquifer. That decision will significantly slow—and maybe even halt—a project that would have pumped 900,000 barrels a day of a type of heavy crude called diluted bitumen from Alberta to refineries along the Gulf Coast. State Department officials estimate an environmental analysis of a reroute through the Cornhusker State won't be complete until 2013.
WASHINGTON—As Brian Nowak made a beeline across Lafayette Square to the handmade "Minnesotans for Climate Action" banner, he was intercepted by a grinning 20-something.
"I'm so happy to see you here," the young man told the white-haired and bearded Nowak. "I was afraid it was only going to be people my age."
"Ditto," thought the 59-year-old architect from a Twin Cities suburb.
As the two mingled early Sunday afternoon in the park next to the White House, both were further relieved to discover that their fellow Keystone XL pipeline protesters were far from a homogenous lot. Skin tones varied from the palest of whites to the darkest of browns. The thousands who spilled into the nation's capital via train, bus, bicycle, car and airplane included babies in backpack carriers, kids tumbling in leaf piles, sign-toting grandmothers, men in suits and ties, college students with a knack for inventive chants—and a handful of leashed dogs elated to be cavorting on a brilliant and sunny autumn day.
The crowd's goal was to give President Obama what activists dubbed a "solidarity hug" by forming a human chain to encircle the White House grounds. At first, Nowak fretted that the monumental effort would flop if the hordes that had signed up didn't follow through on their convictions. But his worries vanished a few hours later, when what he had feared might be a mere trickle overflowed into a rumbling river of an estimated 10,000 people standing at least two to three deep, encircling what amounts to about eight city blocks. Most had donned organizer-issued orange vests, so an aerial view would have resembled a bizarrely colored moat around the most famous address in America.
WASHINGTON—TransCanada's offer to fund a $100 million performance bond if it fails to clean up a future oil spill in Nebraska's sensitive Sandhills might sound like a hefty sum.
But is it enough to persuade state legislators not to reroute the hotly contested Keystone XL pipeline out of that fragile landscape when they convene in a special session Tuesday?
Critics maintain that the bond—the centerpiece in a package of six Nebraska-specific safety measures that TransCanada executive Alex Pourbaix rolled out in an Oct. 18 letter to lawmakers—is nothing more than a duplicate of what the federal government already requires for spills.
They also say the amount is very small, considering that the cost of an ongoing cleanup of a heavy crude spill in Michigan is nearing $700 million.
"The bond is merely grandstanding with big numbers intended to impress the uninformed," attorney Paul Blackburn told InsideClimate News. He tracked oil pipelines for the advocacy organization Plains Justice and now advises Bold Nebraska, a coalition of Keystone XL opponents.
In an interview, TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard was unable to answer questions about when or how the bond would kick in, or how much his company would have to pay for it. In a memo to legislators, TransCanada said only that the $100 million would be available if the company "does not clean up a spill in the Sandhills."
WASHINGTON—Any day now, the EPA will be weighing in with an analysis of the State Department's final environmental evaluation of the controversial oil sands Keystone XL pipeline.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said Friday that authorities from her agency's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance will be responding to the document, which was released Aug. 26, within "the next week or so."
WASHINGTON—To hard-core environmentalists, the Obama administration's upcoming decision on the fiercely debated Keystone XL oil sands pipeline is black and white. Say no to the Canada-to-Gulf Coast pipeline, they insist, or they won't support Obama's re-election bid.
But judging the president's performance through such a narrow prism could backfire and make these pipeline hardliners politically irrelevant, analysts say, especially when the economy is tanking.
"All you hear about now is jobs, jobs, jobs," Saint Louis University political science professor Ken Warren told InsideClimate News. "And this pipeline is going to be painted as a jobs creation issue. It doesn't matter how many jobs will actually be created. In politics, it's about perception. And you're going to get blasted for not allowing it to be built."
Obama came into office as genuinely pro-environment and promising progress, said Warren, a political analyst and pollster for more than three decades.
"Now the greens are putting the squeeze on him," Warren said, "and Obama is saying, 'I know, I know, I know but I can't do what you want me to do with this pipeline. Don't you understand?'"
Evidently not. Claiming it should be a simple decision for Obama, hard-core greens frame the issue like this. Approving the $7 billion project would open a spigot to unneeded dirty fuel and reward the president's bitterest Big Oil enemies, who are intent on limiting him to one term. Rejecting it, on the other hand, would defuse a "carbon bomb" and reignite the devotion of an increasingly demoralized environmental community that raised piles of money and rounded up disengaged voters to help elect him in 2008.
That black and white clarity blurs to a murky gray hue, however, for a president up for re-election in less than 13 months saddled with sagging approval ratings, an unemployment rate stubbornly stuck at 9.1 percent and a sluggish economy on the verge of slumping back into a recession.
WASHINGTON—TransCanada and the U.S. State Department have repeatedly touted safety standards for the proposed Keystone XL heavy crude pipeline as robust and unparalleled. As proof, they point to 57 "special conditions" that the Alberta-based pipeline operator has agreed to follow.
But environmental watchdogs counter that those much-boasted-about claims are based on nothing more than smoke and mirrors. And they have compiled evidence to back up their accusations.
According to recent research by the Natural Resources Defense Council, only 12 of the 57 conditions set by federal regulators at the Department of Transportation differ in any way at all from the minimum standards the DOT routinely requires for pipeline safety. NRDC is an advocacy organization intent on halting construction of the pipeline.
"Many of these safety conditions are just restating current regulations," said Anthony Swift, the NRDC energy analyst responsible for the point-by-point study. "But they've been used as the cornerstone in the argument that we don’t need to worry about Keystone XL because these 57 conditions will solve any unknown safety risk that the pipeline poses."
The DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is responsible for overseeing hazardous liquid pipelines and enforcing safety measures. PHMSA began drawing up the list of conditions back in 2009 when TransCanada applied for a Keystone XL safety waiver. The company dropped its request for that waiver in August 2010 but announced in April that it would voluntarily comply with PHMSA's 57 conditions.
These precautionary measures are supposed to address pipeline safety concerns such as puncture resistance, inspections, and welding and construction standards. Both PHMSA and TransCanada said that's exactly what they do.
The 57 safety conditions the company agreed to with PHMSA are "above and beyond the industry norm," TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha told InsideClimate News.