Obama rebuked for Keystone claims

President Obama’s dismissal of the job benefits from the Keystone XL pipeline drew a furious rebuke on Monday from supporters of the project who accused him of ignoring his own State Department.

Republican lawmakers and industry groups said the president is making baseless claims about the proposed pipeline that have already been disproven by members of the administration.

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“A president disparaging private-sector jobs while backstage at a jobs rally is beyond belief. The president’s own State Department reported that Keystone would support upwards of 40,000 jobs. In this economy, any source of private job creation should be welcomed with open arms,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said in a statement.

The pipeline’s boosters challenged Obama’s remark that Keystone would create only 2,000 construction jobs, pointing him to State’s finding in a draft review that the project would actually generate 42,100 direct and indirect jobs during the initial two-year assembly phase.

The State draft review also said that 3,900 of those jobs would go to construction workers.

Obama told The New York Times that the jobs created by Keystone would be a “blip” compared to what’s needed for the economy.

State agreed with Obama's assessment in a Monday statement to The Hill, adding that it was still reviewing the Keystone application and its 1.2 million comments in a "transparent and rigorous manner."

"The President was clearly stating that the proposed project would have a negligible impact on the overall US job market, which was the finding of the State Department in the initial, Draft SEIS (supplemental environmental impact statement)," a State Department official said.

Despite the attention on jobs, Obama said his focus is on the impact of the project on climate change, and vowed to evaluate it on the basis of whether it “significantly exacerbates” greenhouse gas emissions.

Republicans said they found Obama’s move to downplay the jobs created by the project to be an interesting twist.

“Our first thought was: this has to be the first time the Obama administration has ever understated the jobs associated with a project it is responsible for either approving or denying,” said Robert Dillon, a spokesman with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), in a Monday statement.

The responses to Obama added another layer of acrimony to long-running battle over the Canada-to-Texas pipeline.

The State Department is weighing whether to award Keystone builder TransCanada Corp. a cross-border permit to complete the pipeline’s northern leg.

Supporters in industry, labor and Congress say the administration has dragged its feet on a decision, keeping the cap on a project that they say will bring a gusher of jobs. Some backers have put the new Keystone job figures in the hundreds of thousands.

The White House tried to lower the temperature in the debate on Monday. Deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama “is interested in ... draining the politics out of this debate and evaluating this process on the merits.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, which backs Keystone, said Obama’s new remarks about the pipeline had raised the specter of more delays.

“I think as he continues to make these comments that refer to jobs, refer to climate, refer to energy security, there’s somewhat of an opportunity to leave the door open ... to more studies, perhaps, to more reconsideration. We don’t think that’s needed,” Matt Koch, the vice president of the Chamber group, told The Hill in an interview.

Koch said Obama’s jobs claims were unsubstantiated, and called on him to drop the “rhetoric” surrounding the looming Keystone decision.

Industry supporters homed in on State’s jobs figure, noting the department said Keystone would supply 3,900 construction jobs for just its northern portion.

“The State Department report itself is the place to go here for President Obama. Given that claim on jobs, given his claim on gas prices, given his claim on greenhouse gas emissions, all three claims are addressed in the State Department report. Perhaps he hasn’t seen it yet,” Matt Dempsey, a spokesman with industry-backed group Oil Sands Fact Check, told The Hill.

Whether he’s seen the report or not — the White House didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Hill — green groups that want to nix Keystone said Obama’s comments have buoyed their cause.

Daniel Kessler, a spokesman with climate advocacy group 350.org, said Obama’s new outspokenness on Keystone is a “huge change” from a previously “quiet and kind of evasive” approach.

The jobs claims, coupled with Obama’s commitment to assess the project based on its climate impact, led Kessler to believe the pipeline’s opponents have the upper hand.

“If the president approves the pipeline, I will eat my hat. I cannot see how the president now with his public comments could approve it,” he said.

Environmental groups have questioned State’s draft review, which said Keystone wouldn’t substantially increase greenhouse gas emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency has also challenged that finding.

Anthony Swift, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s international program, said he believes Obama’s recent comments hewed toward similar doubts.

“It’s clear that the President has taken a close look at the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and sees it for what it is, a dangerous and dirty energy projects that brings our country few benefits and undermines the ambitious initiatives his Administration is pursing in the battle against climate change,” Swift told The Hill in an email.

— Ben Geman contributed.

This story was first posted at 1:57 p.m. and has been updated.