Artful and Delphic: Obama on Keystone Pipeline Is All Things at Once

As the media tries to make sense of Obama's obscure remarks on Keystone, the president becomes both an opponent and supporter of the project.

President Barack Obama delivers climate speech
President Obama delivers his major climate change speech at Georgetown University, July 25, 2013. Credit:

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In a long-awaited, 50-minute speech Tuesday President Obama made clear what his plans are for tackling climate change—except on one major issue.

No one could divine what Obama meant when he talked about the Keystone XL pipeline.

“Both pipeline proponents and pipeline haters cheered his remarks—an unusual reaction,” Reuters wrote.

Obama’s roughly 150 words (about a minute and a half) on the pipeline—his most noteworthy discussion of the project to date—have been parsed by media outlets and pundits across the globe. It was the first time Obama linked the Keystone XL decision to global warming. Because of that, some observers said the president seemed to be considering rejection of the pipeline—a claim that puts a stake through the heart of a common narrative that has Obama trading a Keystone XL approval for carbon cuts at existing power plants. Others saw the speech as a pipeline greenlight.

Adding to the mystery is that no one expected Obama to even mention the Keystone XL, which would feed Texas refineries 830,000 barrels a day of tar sands oil from Canada. His words were leaked just prior to the speech.

Here’s exactly what President Obama said:

Our energy strategy must be about more than just producing more oil. And, by the way, it’s certainly got to be about more than just building one pipeline.

Now, 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. And 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.

Here’s a sampling of what political reporters and commentators thought Obama meant:

Obama Declares Keystone XL Will Be Approved (Forbes) 

“Any rational parsing of [Obama’s] words can only suggest that the pipeline will be approved after all.”

Has Obama Turned Against Keystone? (Bloomberg View)

“This is more negative than Obama has ever been about Keystone,” said Mary Duenwald, a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.

“It always seemed that, in opposing Keystone so stridently, climate activists chose the wrong target. They would have been smarter to spend their energy fighting coal-fired power. Based on what Obama said today, it seems they might end up winning both battles.”

Obama: Keystone XL Should Not Be Approved If It Will Increase Greenhouse Gas Emissions (Huffington Post)

“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.”

Keystone: Obama Changes the Question. (This Is Big.) (MacClean’s)

“By making Keystone about carbon, Obama changes the question. The approval process until now has focused mostly on the integrity of the pipeline, the route chosen, the threat to the Ogallala aquifer, and so on. It was possible to have a pretty good debate about the merits of the pipeline without even mentioning that it would carry hydrocarbons prepared in a greenhouse-intensive manner. But now Obama has put that consideration at the centre of the decision.”

Obama Casts Doubt on Keystone Pipeline, But No Clear ‘No’ (The Toronto Star)

“It sounded, note for note, like the death knell of Canada’s Keystone XL pipeline”

After Obama Climate Speech, Canada Confident on Keystone XL (AP)

“Canada’s natural resources minister said Tuesday he’s confident the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline project from Canada to Texas will be approved because it meets President Barack Obama’s requirement that it not lead to a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Obama Hints at Keystone Approval (Politico)

“His remarks can certainly set the groundwork for the president to later say he’d successfully demanded the highest environmental safeguards for the pipeline, if — as is widely expected — he eventually gives it the green light.”

Obama May Have left Himself Wiggle Room to Approve Keystone XL (Washington Post)

“Obama might have left himself some room to approve the pipeline,” Blad Plumer, who writes the WonkBlog said. “We’ll have to see how the State Department ultimately comes down on this emissions question. My colleague Juliet Eilperin reports that ‘the administration will examine whether vetoing the project—which would mean the oil would likely be shipped by rail—would translate into higher emissions than building it.’

“That said, this is the first time that Obama has put climate change at the debate over Keystone XL, which is a real shift in how he’s talked about the subject.”

Obama Sets Strict Test for Keystone XL Pipeline (Los Angeles Times)

“The announcement on Keystone would give Obama a reason to block the Alberta-to-Texas pipeline project should he decide to do so, but does not necessarily commit him.”

Rivals Read What They Want in Obama Keystone Remarks (Reuters)

“When President Barack Obama weighed in on the Keystone XL pipeline controversy on Tuesday, his comments became a kind of Rorschach inkblot test for rival lobbies, reflecting their wishes for the fate of the long-delayed project.”