Activists, lawmakers search for meaning in Obama's Keystone comments

A day after President Obama’s surprise comments on the Keystone XL pipeline, lawmakers and interest groups remain puzzled by what they heard.

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Most said Obama’s comments were vague enough to leave advocates and foes of the pipeline scrambling to figure out how the administration will determine whether Keystone exacerbates carbon emissions.

Some say Obama’s remarks could allow him to delay the pipeline, which would bring carbon-heavy oil sands from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

“We view this somewhat with suspicion because this is another potential avenue to delay or potentially derail the pipeline,” said Matt Letourneau, a spokesman with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy.

Others said Obama’s comments give them hope approval is coming since the State Department in a draft environmental analysis already found Keystone would not substantially hike greenhouse gas emissions.

“If he’s basing the decision on whether there’s no significant environmental, greenhouse gas concerns — that’s what the State Department found,” said Cindy Schild, the American Petroleum Institute’s downstream director for refineries and oil sands.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told The Hill on Wednesday that he’s not certain what to make of Obama’s statements.

In a speech Tuesday on climate policy, Obama said he will approve the Keystone XL pipeline only if it does not substantially increase greenhouse gas emissions 

The administration had given no indication Obama would address Keystone in his climate speech — it was absent from details given to reporters ahead of Tuesday's address.

Letourneau and Ross Eisenberg, vice president of energy and resources policy with the National Association of Manufacturers, worry Obama might have set a new bar for green-lighting Keystone that could change what the State Department analyzes in its final environmental study of the pipeline.

“A day later, we’re still a little perplexed,” Eisenberg said. “I am guessing that proponents on the other side of the border are scratching their heads a little bit.”

Letourneau said he’s concerned that the administration might call for a new review using its recently updated “social cost” of carbon figure, which would increase the benefits of averting greenhouse gas emissions.

Or, he said, it might signal that Obama is willing to ignore whatever State recommends, siding instead with an agency that might challenge its conclusions. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, objected to Foggy Bottom's environmental findings in its draft report.

“If the president was simply going to accept the State Department analysis, he wouldn’t have said what he said. He essentially called for a new analysis,” Letourneau said.

Green groups hope that’s what Obama meant because that’s what they want.

They have long called the State review flawed, claiming the consultant that performed the analysis has oil industry ties.

Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs with the League of Conservation Voters, said the State finding that firms will develop oil sands with or without Keystone has been “shot to pieces.”

“Yesterday made clear that the administration is even willing to take a fresh look,” she told The Hill.

The environmental community argued Obama’s comment might push Secretary of State John Kerry, who’s used his new Foggy Bottom perch to advance climate change discourse, to change the scope of the final review.

“Kerry’s been a lifetime climate champion,” Lena Moffitt, the Sierra Club’s Washington, D.C., representative, told The Hill. “That last EIS (environmental impact statement) came out three weeks after Kerry was in office. He didn’t select the contractor. This time around we hope that they do things differently.”

Others suggested Obama’s comments at a high-profile climate change speech might mean he’s already leaning toward scrapping the project, irrespective of what State recommends.

“I think based on his own criteria there’s no way he can approve the pipeline,” Daniel Kessler, a spokesman with climate advocacy group 350.org, told The Hill. “I have no doubt that the president is going to say no.”