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Obama's New Special Adviser Is Outspoken Foe of Keystone XL and Tar Sands

'Oil extraction from tar sands is polluting, destructive, expensive, and energy intensive,' John Podesta said in a speech in 2010.

Dec 10, 2013
John Podesta

WASHINGTON—By asking John Podesta to come to the White House as a special counselor at a time of turmoil and tough choices, President Obama has created an unusually close tie to an outspoken critic of the Keystone XL pipeline and the Canadian tar sands it would carry.

Podesta is a Washington policy insider who was Bill Clinton's chief of staff and whose Center for American Progress, or CAP, is an influential voice of liberalism. He has kept climate change high on his agenda for years and will continue to do so in the White House, reported The New York Times, which broke the news of his new assignment.

His arrival comes just as the decision on TransCanada's proposal to build a controversial pipeline to deliver tar sands crude from Alberta across the midsection of the United States approaches a critical turning point: the completion of a final environmental impact statement by the State Department. That will be followed by a crucial 90-day period in which Obama must decide whether the pipeline is in the U.S. national interest.

Environmentalists who oppose the pipeline view the decision as a crucial test of Obama’s determination to tackle the problem of climate change.

Podesta has allied himself closely with some of them, including the wealthy investor Tom Steyer, who has been mobilizing opposition to the project. They appeared together at CAP's conference to celebrate its 10th anniversary this fall.

Just last week, CAP co-sponsored a daylong conference with Steyer's team in Georgetown to argue that the pipeline could not pass the litmus test Obama set back in June—that the Keystone could only be approved if it didn't significantly exacerbate greenhouse gas emissions.

From the moment Obama set that standard in a June speech, Podesta seems to have recognized the opportunity to reverse a tide that some had seen as flowing Keystone's way. On Twitter, he called the news a "huge announcement."

The Keystone decision is not by any means the main reason Obama sought his help at this time. Podesta's range of policy expertise is very broad, and Obama is turning to him for help with many challenges—from the implementation of the health care overhaul to the problem of income inequality that Obama has been trying to elevate on the national agenda. These, not the KXL, will dominate their work on what the White House sees as legacy issues.

But climate change is another such legacy issue. And as the various interests in the Keystone decision make their final arguments at the White House, Podesta could not be better positioned as a particularly close adviser to voice his own views—and to debunk the arguments of those who favor the tar sands pipeline.

Just as he arrives, other key environmental aides are leaving: Heather Zichal, the White House climate czar, Nancy Sutley, the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, and Gary Guzy, Sutley's deputy. (Zichal is replaced by her deputy, Dan Utech.)

A Long Public Record

Podesta's views on the tar sands and the Keystone pipeline have been clear for years.

In a 2010 speech entitled "The Dirty Truth About Tar Sands," he said that "oil extraction from tar sands is polluting, destructive, expensive, and energy intensive." He was speaking to a conference addressing ways that the industry might be made more "green," which he called highly unrealistic.

After Obama turned down TransCanada's initial proposal for the pipeline in 2011, saying that there wasn't enough time to make an informed decision under a tight deadline imposed by Congress, Podesta and Steyer jointly wrote an op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal saying that the pipeline was unnecessary. They based their argument on the fact that oil production in the Bakken and other U.S. oilfields was growing so fast that the Canadian supplies were becoming irrelevant.

"While conservatives have been fighting to build a pipeline to import more foreign oil and deepen U.S. dependence, the U.S. is poised to transform its energy portfolio by developing domestic resources—renewable and mineral—that will let it become a net exporter of clean energy and energy technology in this decade," they wrote.

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