By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now blogs

What the President said yesterday about the Keystone XL pipeline sounded sensible and straightforward:

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.  (Applause.)  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. 

But what did the POTUS really mean in his climate action address? Roll the words around, toss them into the 24/7 Internet news cycle mixmaster, and you’ve got massive speculation. Obama could be indicating yes, or no, to Keystone XL.

Keystone XL official map

Map shows proposed route for Keystone XL, and the route (in orange) of a precursor Keystone pipeline completed in 2010. State Dept. approval is needed because the pipeline crosses an international border.

Like a mechanical fortune teller with an electrical short, the prez remains inscrutable on this topic.

The subtext could be, ‘Obviously this massive carbon-spewing fossil fuel project will have to be turned down,’ as some environmentalists hopefully ventured after the speech.

Or the essence could’ve been, ‘Heck, if the State Department finds a way to justify it, and the pipeline offsets its carbon emissions, then it’s all good’ — as House Speaker John Boehner and other pipeline advocates took the statement.

Here’s a sampling of how people are running in opposite directions with Obama’s remarks:

  • Forbes reporter Christopher Helman, who covers energy from Houston, maintains that Obama signaled that Keystone XL will not be approved because one cannot possibly argue that it will “significantly impact” carbon emissions worldwide:

And then there’s the word “significantly.” What does that mean? To be significant means having a noticeable effect. Now Keystone XL, as designed, would have a daily transport capacity of about 800,000 barrels of oil. Is that significant? It is to you. It’s even significant to the United States, which uses about 20 million barrels per day. But in the scheme of the whole world — and we are talking about GLOBAL warming — it’s not really significant at all. That 800,000 bpd amounts to less than 1% of the world’s daily crude oil consumption. And when you include all the daily greenhouse gas emissions from coal and natural gas and humans breathing and cow flatulence, the emissions that could be linked to Keystone XL would amount to significantly less than half of 1% of total global emissions.

  • Environmentalist Bill McKibben, founder of took a view that was 360-degrees from Forbes.

It “makes me think it’s more likely the White House will reject the Keystone Pipeline, which is the biggest environmental battle in a generation–the president is a logical man, and taking two steps forward only to take two back would make no sense.”

  • Sierra Club was simpatico with McKibben. “The President’s strong commitment to using climate pollution as the standard by which Keystone XL will be decided means his decision to reject it should now be easy.  Any fair and unbiased analysis of the tar sands pipeline shows that the climate effects of this disastrous project would be significant.”
Tar sands mine PROMO

An aerial view of tar sands mining in Alberta, Canada.

Is everyone just hearing what they want to hear?

Complicating the issue is the fact that the approval process for Keystone has been corrupted by the involvement of lobbyists with personal ties to onetime Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and also to President Obama (a story that’s significant but we don’t have time to tell here; read about it at Friends of the Earth).

Over the last few years, favorable findings by the State Department have led to a dejected feeling among many environmentalists that Keystone XL is headed toward approval, despite what they see as its highly damaging environmental effects and potential toxic leakiness.

Even the EPA flagged the State Department for a once-over-lightly approach to the environmental impacts of the pipeline. EPA called out its criticisms in a letter to State officials in April.

In offering its feedback, the EPA notes that tar sands oil is “significantly more GHG intensive than other crudes, and therefore has potentially large climate impacts.”

Yet, in advising State authorities to better explore the possible outcomes of turning down the pipeline — essentially by documenting how the oil could get to market anyway via rail or Canadian pipelines — the EPA seemingly draws a road map for how State could justify the pipeline.

Up is down and down is up.

If the next State Department impact report on the project (due anytime) shows that the tar sands impact on the world is inevitable, whether or not the U.S. allows the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline, that could be interpreted to mean that the pipeline’s imprint will not be “significant” (in that tar sands oil escapes to emerging markets anyway, and maybe even causes more carbon pollution enroute).

Or will it? A really buttoned-up impact statement, showing the full greenhouse gas effects of Canadian tar sands oil extraction and consumption would detail multiple negative effects on the atmosphere, starting with the loss of carbon-holding boreal forests that are being cleared for tar sands mines and ending with the burning of the refined oil in countries across the world (affecting our shared skies).

That would clearly impact climate change. Would the effect be negative enough? Count us, at this point, significantly confused.

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