A new report outlining the potential environmental effects of the polarizing Keystone XL pipeline project leaves the door open to a decision either way by the Obama administration, despite positive spin from both advocates and detractors.
Energy industry analysts count the report as a win, as it says going ahead with the construction project to connect Canadian tar sands to oil refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast would not significantly increase carbon emissions because the energy resource will be tapped whether or not the potentially lucrative pipeline is finished. President Barack Obama, who ultimately holds decision-making power over the project via the State Department, made the carbon question a bright line during a major climate change speech at Georgetown University last June.
"Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires finding that doing so would be in our nation's interests," he said at the time, before a crowd of a couple hundred invited guests that included cabinet members and members of Congress. "[They] will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. 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."
Kate Colarulli, director of the Sierra Club's tar sands campaign, says the report's release marks the "third quarter" in the decision-making process.
"I'm actually pretty optimistic with what we are going to see," she says. "This report is going to have some things environmentalists like and it's going to have some things that the oil industry likes, and it's going to be written in a way that lets the president make the decision that he thinks is best."
With the project headed into a public comment period, Colarulli says environmentalists and other Keystone opponents already are planning protest vigils and a major rally to make their voices heard.
But conservatives also are cheered by the report and will be organizing similar efforts.
Brigham McCown worked within the Department of Transportation during the George W. Bush administration and was in charge of pipeline safety. Now working for an energy consulting firm pushing for approval of the Keystone project, McCown says the report's finding that there is no significant environmental impact is a positive sign.
"This [report] bodes well for Keystone XL, it's frankly long overdue," he says, adding that this final report should "largely put the environmental question to bed."
McCown says it's now time for the administration to focus on the real question regarding the pipeline: if its construction is in the United States' national interest.
"That's the whole bag of chips," he says.
Also looming over the Obama administration's decision are the 2014 midterm elections, particularly as it relates to three vulnerable Democrats running in conservative states with strong pro-energy interests – Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska.
"It could help a lot of Democrats in key battleground states, who are, from what I can tell, more on board with building the pipeline. So this could actually help their chances for re-election," McCown says. "I believe if this debate drags on into the fall, it could actually help the Republicans out. I would expect the president to end this thing well before the 2014 election."
Colarulli, however, argues an Obama rejection of the pipeline would best aid the vulnerable Democrats, maintaining that Obama should cater to Democratic interests in order to solidify support before the elections.
"The interest groups that President Obama's party is going to need in the upcoming elections, their interests are better served by saying 'no' to the pipeline," she says. "The president's key constituencies hate this thing. When you look at the pictures of the tar sands, it's very hard for any common-sense person to walk away not thinking that this is like climate Armageddon."
Regardless, the report pushes the country closer to the conclusion of a topic that has fiercely divided partisans and holds significant consequences for the future of energy production.
"This is what everyone is waiting for, everything cascades from this – every environmental decision is predicated on how this comes out," says one conservative energy lobbyist who supports the pipeline.
Regardless of what the administration ultimately decides, there will be serious fallout, he predicts.
"Someone's going to win and someone in the industry – the climate, energy space – is going to get screwed," says the lobbyist, who spoke on background but declined to be named in order to speak freely. "Either way, he's going to have to make a quick pivot to appease the other side."