Parsing Obama’s comment on Keystone

Luiza Ch. Savage on a speech that put oil sands emissions front and centre

<p>President Barack Obama gestures during a speech on climate change, Tuesday, June 25, 2013, at Georgetown University in Washington. Obama is proposing sweeping steps to limit heat-trapping pollution from coal-fired power plants and to boost renewable energy production on federal property. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)</p>

President Barack Obama gestures during a speech on climate change, Tuesday, at Georgetown University in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)

President Barack Obama speaks on climate change, Tuesday, at Georgetown University in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Here is what President Barack Obama said about the Keystone XL pipeline in his climate policy speech today:

“What is true is that we can’t just drill our way out of the energy and climate challenge that we face.  That’s not possible. I’ve put forward in the past an all-of-the-above energy strategy, but 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 the 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 finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interests.

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.”

A decision on permitting the cross-border portion of the pipeline is still months away, according to U.S. ambassador David Jacobson.

Meanwhile, the State Department is working on a final Environmental Impact Statement for the project (one that will take into account a redesigned route in Nebraska).

A draft EIS was issued in March. In that document, the State Department wrote that if the pipeline were to increase the rate of development of the oil sands, it would increase global greenhouse gas emissions:

If the proposed Project were to induce growth in the rate of extraction in the oil sands, then it could cause GHG emissions greater than just its direct emissions.

However, the State Department concluded that the approval of the pipeline would have little influence on the rate of oil sands development:

Based on information and analysis about the North American crude transport infrastructure (particularly the proven ability of rail to transport substantial quantities of crude oil profitably under current market conditions, and to add capacity relatively rapidly) and the global crude oil market, the draft Supplemental EIS concludes that approval or denial of the proposed Project is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude oil refined in the Gulf Coast area.

So is Obama’s “significantly exacerbate” the same as “unlikely to have a substantial impact?”

And does the choice of words “net effects” of the pipeline’s impact signify that he will take into account other mitigation measures in Canada in making the decisions?

It sure looks likely. And one way to read his remarks is that he seems to be asking his supporters to look beyond “just building one pipeline” to his broader climate plan.

Of course, there is always the chance that State could change its analysis. In a conference call with reporters in March, a senior State official emphasized that the analysis was merely a draft, not set in stone, and that officials were “anxious” for input from the public. Environmental groups have been submitting reports arguing to the department that building the pipeline would accelerate development in the oil sands, especially given the difficulties in building other pipelines to bring the oil to overseas markets.

But at this point, it’s significant that Obama said the issue of oil sands emissions is crucial to his decision.

In this interview, Foreign Affairs minister John Baird, said upstream greenhouse gas emissions in Canada were not part of the decision-making process in Washington:

“That’s not part of the equation. The American regulatory consideration is of the pipeline, not of the source of the oil.”

Obama has now put them front and centre.