Reading John Kerry's Mind on the Keystone Pipeline

What might the Secretary of State be telling himself as he prepares to decide whether the oil pipeline is in the nation's interest? Here we take a guess.

Secretary of State John Kerry looks out at the Swiss Alps on a flight to Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 21, 2014. Credit: U.S. State Department

Imagine, if you will, John Kerry's internal monologue—his soliloquy as the State Department prepares to release its final environmental impact statement (EIS) on the Keystone XL pipeline designed to funnel tar sands crude from Alberta across the U.S. midsection. After the EIS arrives, Kerry must review whether the pipeline is in the national interesta question that Obama has said rests largely on its climate impacts. Of course, we can't know what Kerry really thinks. Here we take a guess by looking at recent reports and other materials.

If only I could get out of this Keystone decision. Not just punt it, as Obama has been accused of doing. I mean avoid it entirely.

I know that's not possible. Like I told Canadian officials the other day when they pushed me: We're on it. Effectively and rapidly, I think I said. Finish up the environmental review, then my work begins. Ninety days to say whether the Keystone XL is in the national interest.

You can't force a snap judgment. Congress tried that in 2012and it only let Obama delay past the election, until my watch.

Back then, I was one of the most outspoken Senators ever to master the subject of climate change—right up there with Al Gore. But I always wanted to be Secretary of State, and unlike Gore I kept my thoughts on the Keystone XL to myself.

Unlike either of us, Obama became president. If he tells me to okay this cross-border pipeline, the way he let its southern leg go ahead, I wouldn't want to have to explain how I was against it before I was for it.

How about this instead: That judge in Nebraska might get me off the hook. She must be ready to decide whether the governor and legislature ran roughshod over the constitution when they approved the pipeline's new route. Her early rulings in Thompson v. Heineman went in the plaintiff's favor, and the case went through oral arguments months ago. If she sides with the landowner, how could we finish our review of the route?

Thing is, it's risky to let the courts set climate policy. They can be just as bossy as Congress. These days we're all about executive powers. And an executive order delegates Obama's Keystone XL decision to me.

Not to John Podesta, who says climate change is one of his top two or three priorities as special counselor to Barack. Since John practically wears "#NoKXL" cufflinks, he had to say he'll bow out on this one.

I almost wonder if Podesta is the one who put the notion into Obama's head in the first place to ad-lib the pipeline into that big climate speech last summer. Deniable, sure. But the move was effective.

The part of the speech where Obama said a verdict on the pipeline will come down to its implications for global warming elevated this decision into legacy status for the presidentbut also for me, given the way I talked about action on climate change in my first few speeches as Secretary of State.

I want to save the planet, but can't a Secretary of State's hallmark be about something a little more pinstriped than the carbon footprint of dilbit? I'd gladly cede the all-of-the-above portfolio to Ernest Moniznot that he's grabbing for this role either.

Susan Rice would never have let herself get caught with one eye on oil shipments out of Canada and the other on arms shipments into Syria.

If she'd become Secretary of State after Hillary, whose mind seemed to be already made up, Susan could have recused herself from the whole business.

She actually owned stock in TransCanada. That doesn't make her Engine Charlie Wilson, but you can't quite get away these days with saying that what's good for Big Oil is good for America. National interest, meet conflict of interest.

That reminds medoesn't the Inspector General owe me a report on all those complaints about contractor bias in the environmental review? I wonder, if he comes down hard would we have to delay the final EIS again? Maybe even start over? That's probably wishful thinking. Last time around, the IG's report was no knock-out punch.

I wouldn't want the IG on my case, though. I've kept hands off the environmental impact statement until it comes out of the back office. Let the sherpas do the heavy lifting on the EIS, and we'll see if they can avoid a lawsuit, or a failing report card from the Environmental Protection Agency, under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

Most of my career foreign service officers would rather work on Kathmandu than CO2. One of them even showed me that if you Google "State Department NEPA" you get mostly hits about Nepal. Try it, it works.

Who can blame Genevieve Walker, my NEPA compliance officer on the Keystone XL, for quitting?

I'd quit too if I had to deal with more than a million comments in the Keystone XL public docket. Not that we actually read them all. The ones that make me wince are from people who knocked on doors for me when I ran for president, begging me not to abandon themor my principles.

Maybe I should just forget about politics and just concentrate on how the science is screaming at us. The scientists, tooincluding all those folks who won the Heinz Award that my wife Theresa set up a few years back.

What if she were First Lady? I wonder what my Secretary of State would do.

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