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As State Department releases report on Keystone pipeline, pressure builds over final decision

January 31, 2014 at 6:05 PM EST
A report by the State Department concluded that the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline raised no major environmental risks to deter its construction. Jeffrey Brown gets an update on the controversial project from Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As the proposed Keystone oil pipeline extension cleared a major hurdle today, it set off alarms in some quarters and lifted hopes in the world of energy and business.

Jeffrey Brown has more on today’s developments.

JEFFREY BROWN: The pipeline would stretch from the Alberta, Canada, oil sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast, moving more than 800,000 barrels of oil a day. There are concerns about leaks and spills, but some of the biggest environmental issues are focused on the extraction of the oil.

Juliet Eilperin has been reporting on this story for The Washington Post and joins me now.

So, Juliet, fill in the picture a bit. What exactly was the State Department looking at in this report? And what was its key finding?

JULIET EILPERIN, The Washington Post: They were looking the a whole range of impacts, including whether rejecting the pipeline would make a different in global greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change.

They also looked at things like what would happen if there was a spill and what about endangered species along the route, things like that. Their overall conclusion was that no one single infrastructure project makes a huge difference, a significant difference in terms of development in the oil sands region in Canada. And so the overall climate change impact they’re saying is not significant from this decision. That’s their broad conclusion.

JEFFREY BROWN: So this is, of course, highly contentious, with environmentalists feeling that they have evidence of just the opposite. So just remind us of what their main concerns have been.

JULIET EILPERIN: Absolutely.

So, environmentalists have been arguing for years at this point that by allowing this pipeline to travel from the United States to Gulf Coast — from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries in the U.S., you’re accelerating climate change, both because you are speeding development in the oil sands region, and also because you’re increasing the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels.

And one very interesting fact is that, while this technical document suggests that this one project wouldn’t have a significant global carbon impact, the State Department is making it very clear that they’re still looking at how this pipeline decision fits into the broader national and international climate strategy that the president is pursuing.

And so they’re making it clear that this is not the final word even on what is the climate impact of this project.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so what are they going to be looking at going forward here? They still must decide whether it’s in the so-called national interest, right? How is that being defined?

JULIET EILPERIN: That’s a very broad line, actually. And so it can include everything, including our energy security. In other words, what does it mean to have the supply coming from Canada, as opposed to other countries.

They will look at things like our relationship with Canada and what are the foreign policy implications of this, as well as, again, as I mentioned, they still are going to use this kind of amorphous term, which is how does this fit into the broad national and international climate policy that President Obama is pursuing?

And they will be reviewing this, getting input both from the public, as well as from eight agencies that will weigh in on this question?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so what was the response today?

JULIET EILPERIN: There was, you can imagine a lot of response.

So, for example, clearly the oil industry and other conservatives, for example, on Capitol Hill welcomed it, as well as the Canadian government and TransCanada, the company that has been pursuing this project for years. Environmentalists without exception criticized this, although again they emphasized that they didn’t think this was over.

One interesting thing is we have just had a rail spill of oil in Mississippi. And so there’s — people are seizing on that, saying this is yet another example of what are the problems with the transportation of oil into the United States?

JEFFREY BROWN: The ultimate decision, of course, will be by the president. And there’s been, as you said, so much pressure for several years on this now. What will — do you expect that to not only continue, but ramp up now that we’re into what looks like maybe a final stage here?

JULIET EILPERIN: Absolutely.

I think you will see an intensification of the pressure, particularly on the Secretary of State John Kerry, since this is the moment that he gets involved in the process. He has absolutely stayed out of it until this point, as has the White House. And this is the first moment that, for example, both environmentalists, as well as their opponents, can appeal directly to a man who has made climate change and addressing carbon one of the central points of his career.

And so I think that this is going to become even more intense as we move forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the president himself, last summer, he said he would approve the pipeline only if it didn’t — quote — “significantly exacerbate carbon pollution.”

So today’s decision clearly plays at least partly to that.

JULIET EILPERIN: It does, although, again, when reporters were trying to press the senior State Department official, Kerri-Ann Jones, of whether or not this report answered that question, she declined to answer it. So that is absolutely the central question.

And while at this point the State Department won’t say what role the president will play in this, it’s clear that once a decision is made, the White House can’t stay absolutely removed and that there will be at least some input.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, is there any sense of when a decision will come?

JULIET EILPERIN: That actually is still an open question, which is interesting, particularly in a midterm election year. So, technically, we could be looking at a process that would last about 105 days, if you look at technically the calendar. But one of the things that they have been emphasizing is that both Secretary Kerry will take as much time as he needs to consider it.

So it could be longer. But at the same time, some of the officials warned that it could be shorter, that they will urge agencies to get engaged quickly, and frankly because this is being done under the president’s executive authority, there is considerable flexibility. So there is no deliberate end point that we can see.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post, thanks again.

JULIET EILPERIN: Thank you.