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Obama faces Keystone dilemma after Senate urges pipeline approval

No reason to deny project, bipartisan majority says, but others in Congress press Obama to back up climate change commitment

Barack Obama faced intense pressure to break with his inauguration day promise on climate change on Thursday, after a bipartisan majority in the Senate urged approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The letter from 53 senators said there was no reason for Obama to deny the pipeline – as campaigners are demanding – because the project had now undergone exhaustive environmental review.

The letter, signed by Democrats as well as Republicans, underlined the high political cost to Obama of living up to his promise to act on climate change.

Campaign groups have made the pipeline their signature issue, saying the project to pump crude from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries on the Texas Gulf will unlock vast stores of carbon. Protesters plan a day of civil disobedience on February 17.

But Senators are also ratcheting up the pressure, demanding Obama move swiftly to approve a project they say will boost energy supplies and add jobs.

“Because the pipeline has gone through the most exhaustive environmental scrutiny of any pipeline in the history of this country, and you already determined that oil from Canada is in the national interest, there is no reason to deny or further delay this long-studied project,” the Senators wrote. “We ask you not to move the goalposts as opponents of this project have pressed you to do.”

Other Democrats in Congress are pressing Obama to back up his new commitments on climate change. But they are not making the Keystone XL the defining issue, as campaigners have done. Two Democrats who have led on environmental issues, senator Sheldon Whitehouse and congressman Henry Waxman, set up a bicameral taskforce on climate change on Thursday. The letter asked Obama to “expand on your vision for tackling climate change” and offered suggestions – but these did not include blocking the pipeline.

In comments to reporters, Waxman dismissed the campaigners’ argument that Keystone was a make-or-break issue for Obama – even though he also opposed the pipeline.

“This is only a small issue compared to the overall objective that the president and we want to achieve,” Waxman said. “What would you like me to do? Should I say to the president, ‘If you don’t agree with me on Keystone, I’m not going to work with you on solving the climate change issue’? That would be a little bit childish and counterproductive.”

Meanwhile, the pro-pipeline forces appeared to be gathering strength. The Washington Post, whose editorial board tends to discount the dangers of climate change, also came on board on Thursday. “Obama should ignore the activists who have bizarrely made Keystone XL a line-in-the-sand issue, when there are dozens more of far greater environmental impact,” the newspaper said in an editorial.

TransCanada, the company building the pipeline, noted in an email to reporters that the endorsement followed a meeting between the company’s chief executive and the editorial board.

The state of Nebraska withdrew its objections to the project this week, after TransCanada Corp revised its pipeline route to avoid ecologically sensitive Sandhills region.

That left Obama without political cover for delays in the project. With Nebraska on side, the administration now has the final say over the pipeline.

Construction has already begun on the southern portion of the pipeline, from Oklahoma to the refineries on the Texas Gulf coast. But the State Department must still rule on whether the project is in the “national interest”. That decision will likely fall to John Kerry, as the incoming secretary of state.

Kerry has a strong record on climate change, and led the effort to try to pass a climate law in the Senate. He told his confirmation hearing on Thursday that the US would be defined in part by its global leadership on climate change.

Obama rejected a cross-border permit for the pipeline last year, citing Nebraska’s objections to the original route.

The State Department said this week it expected to complete review of the new route in the spring.

Obama stalls for time after Nebraska approves Keystone XL oil pipeline

President’s spokesman says action on climate change is ‘one of a host of priorities’ as critics demand meaningful action

Barack Obama has ducked a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, a key environmental issue, just one day after delivering a stirring call to action on climate change.

In the first test of Obama’s renewed commitment to climate, the administration said on Tuesday it was putting off until April a decision on the project, which is designed to pump crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. Meanwhile, the White House told reporters that climate change was just “one of a host of priorities” for the president’s second term.

The decision on Keystone XL is widely seen as a key test of his administration’s commitment to the environment. The project was propelled to the top of Obama’s inbox on Tuesday when the the governor of Nebraska signed off on the pipeline, leaving it up to the White House to decide on the fate of the project.

“Construction and operation of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline… would have minimal environmental impacts in Nebraska,” Dave Heineman, the governor of Nebraska, wrote in a letter to the White House. The approval from Nebraska leaves the fate of the project entirely in Obama’s hands.

Republicans immediately pushed Obama to approve the pipeline. “There is no bureaucratic excuse, hurdle or catch President Obama can use to delay this project any further,” John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, said in a statement. “He and he alone stands in the way of tens of thousands of new jobs and energy security.”

Campaigners against the pipeline said Obama should immediately shut down the project. “Approving Keystone XL would make a mockery of the commitment he made at the inauguration to take action on climate change,” said 350.org, which has led opposition to the pipeline.

Obama’s solution was to stall for time. “We don’t anticipate being able to conclude our own review before the end of the first quarter of this year,” said Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman at the state department.

The state department has final approval over the project because it crosses the US-Canadian border. Officials had previously said a decision would be reached before the end of March.

Obama called a halt on the Keystone XL project a year ago, citing opposition from Heineman and local landowners in Nebraska to the proposed pipeline route. Heineman, a Republican, had balked on approving the pipeline because of concerns about its proposed route. Now with Heineman signing off on the pipeline, that political cover is gone, leaving it up to Obama to make a decision on a project that has come to symbolise the clash between environmental protection and economic growth.

In the letter, Heineman said he approved of the revised pipeline route, which would avoid the environmentally sensitive Sandhills region. The route would still cross part of a crucial aquifer. However, Heineman said he was satisfied with the safety plan put forward by the pipeline’s operators, TransCanada. “The concerns of Nebraskans have had a major influence on the pipeline route,” he wrote.

TransCanada Corp, the Canadian company building the pipeline, welcomed the decision and said it could help secure approval from the Obama administration. “Today’s approval of the Nebraska re-route by Governor Heineman moves us one step closer to Americans receiving the benefits of Keystone XL,” Russ Girling, the company’s chief executive, said in a statement.

The statement said the company had adopted a number of measures to make this pipeline safer than other projects, including burying the line and installing remote sensors and shut-down valves to speed reaction time in the event of a spill.

Campaigners accused Heineman of selling out Nebraska landowners. “Governor Heineman just performed one of the biggest flip-flops that we’ve in Nebraska political history,” said Jane Kleeb, the executive director of the group Bold Nebraska.

With Nebraska on board, the state department review of the 1,800-mile route is the last remaining hurdle for the Keystone XL. Campaigners say the decision could determine Obama’s legacy.

The project is crucial for landlocked Alberta, which is facing difficulty getting its vast store of crude out of the ground and into American and European markets. But it would also unlock a big source of carbon, and tie America’s economy more closely to the burning of fossil fuels.

Campaign groups are planning a day of protests at the White House and around the country on 17 February, to try to force Obama to block the project. “If President Obama is serious about tackling climate change, he needs to reject KXL once and for all, and we’re not going away until that happens,” 350.org and Sierra Club said in a statement.

Even before Tuesday’s developments, Obama’s climate commitment was in the spotlight, because of his inaugural address. The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, appeared to damp down expectations on Tuesday. Climate change was indeed “an important issue” for Obama, he said. But Carney added: “It is not a singular priority. It is one of a host of priorities he believes we can act on.”

Carney went on to reaffirm Obama’s commitment to developing America’s home-grown fossil fuels.

Before Tuesday’s developments, campaigners had been upbeat about the possibility that the incoming incoming secretary of state, John Kerry, would be more inclined to block the project than Hillary Clinton. Kerry has a reputation as a climate champion, for his efforts trying to push a climate law through the Senate. But the Keystone XL decision puts him in a delicate position.

Federal financial disclosure records show Kerry, who ranks among the richest men in Congress, has investments in two Calgary-based energy companies that have lobbied for approval of the pipeline project. The Massachusetts Democrat, whose estimated net worth is $194m, had as much as $750,000 in Suncor and $31,000 in Cenova. Both energy firms have pressed for approval of the pipeline, the records show.

Such investments are usually managed by blind trusts, but campaigners have called on Kerry to divest from firms linked to tar sands development.

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