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The Year Ahead in Keystone XL: Climate Worry Introduces Big Unknown

New leadership at the State Dept. and EPA—and the unexpected rise of climate change concern—mean the pipeline decision is still anyone's guess.

Jan 7, 2013

After years of protests and lobbying, the Obama administration is expected to decide within months on the fate of the 1,200-mile Keystone XL oil pipeline.

The State Department is finalizing a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) for the project, which would ship tar sands oil from Canada, through America's heartland, and to the Gulf Coast via other pipelines.

The agency will use the SEIS—expected any day now—to help determine whether the project is in the "national interest," a term that includes economic, energy security and climate change considerations. Due to the pipeline's high profile, President Obama will play an important role in the decision.

Uncertainty and rumors are rife, partly because Hurricane Sandy reignited concern about human-caused climate change and fossil fuels, but largely because the two top officials who bear main responsibility for the decision will soon be replaced. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson will step down this month.

Obama has already nominated Democrat John Kerry to head the State Department, which has authority over cross-border pipelines. The selection of the five-term Massachusetts senator, one of the nation's most vocal proponents of climate action, has heartened opponents of the Keystone XL, who argue the pipeline would exacerbate global warming. The project would carry a kind of oil that emits about 20 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil through the stages of extraction, production and usage.

Kerry co-authored comprehensive climate legislation that died in 2010 and has long pushed for American leadership in global climate treaty talks. In a floor speech last year, Kerry described Washington's lack of climate progress as "a story of disgraceful denial, back-pedaling and delay that has brought us perilously close to a climate change catastrophe.

"Our challenge is fundamentally political. It's not about budgets. It's not about regulations. It's about leaders in the country who are unwilling to deal with the truth about climate change," he said. "Future generations are counting on us."

For most of 2012, climate disappeared from the political agenda—including from the administration's discussions of the Keystone XL—but the issue unexpectedly gained the national spotlight post-Sandy. It remains unclear how, or whether, global warming will be addressed in the forthcoming SEIS and, more generally, by Obama in his second term. The EPA was highly critical of the State Department's prior environmental reviews, in part because they didn't properly assess the pipeline's effect on the climate.

"John Kerry has been a champion for climate issues," said Danielle Droitsch, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "So if he [were] confirmed ... we would certainly hope he would look at that issue specifically."

NRDC is one of many environmental groups that spent years urging the State Department to conduct a thorough review of the pipeline's climate impacts.

Kerry's office declined a request to comment.

A State Department spokeswoman said the agency is currently working with the EPA to prepare the SEIS. After the report is released, the EPA will join other federal agencies to weigh in on the final national interest determination expected in the spring.

Jackson's resignation, announced last month, triggered claims that she was departing due to her alleged opposition to the Keystone XL—which in turn sparked rumors that Obama plans to approve the project.

Other sources said she wasn't asked to stay for a second term.

EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said Jackson "made it clear in her [resignation] statement that it's time to pursue new challenges and spend time with family. So the idea that her decision was made [based] on anything else is completely false."

Droitsch, the NRDC attorney, said that regardless of the reason for Jackson's departure, "the more important point is that Lisa Jackson was a leader when it came to Keystone XL. She asked really tough questions on climate, pipeline safety, the impact on communities in Texas in terms of refinery emissions. That leadership was absolutely unprecedented ... and we hope that legacy carries on."

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