Keystone XL Pipeline Decision a Test on Obama, Environmentalism

Despite green protests, the State Department moves forward with Keystone XL approval process.

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President Obama cancelled the rest of his Martha's Vineyard vacation plans to be in Washington for the impending hurricane. But, perhaps worse than the high winds and heavy rains expected to hit the capital, he'll be coming back to a storm of criticism from environmentalists who are lashing out against the State Department's just released findings on the Keystone XL pipeline project.

The State Department report, released Friday, found that the proposed pipeline project—which would bring oil from Canada's oil sands as far as Texas—would have little significant impact on the natural resources in its path. For the oil industry, and for the pipeline's sponsor Transcanada especially, the report's findings signify a major hurdle crossed in getting final approval for the project. For Transcanada to move forward with the project, the State Department still needs to decide whether the pipeline is in the "national interest," a decision which should come later this year. [Check out our gallery of editorial cartoons on gas prices.]

But until that final decision, environmentalists—a significant political base for President Obama—seem poised to turn up the pressure on the administration, especially after Friday's setback. "Whether to approve this pipeline is the most important environmental decision President Obama will make before the election," said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy group, in an E-mail Friday. "If he sides with greedy oil companies instead of people and the climate, he will essentially be urging a huge part of his base to sit out the election. With this supposedly final review of the pipeline's environmental impacts, the State Department has let him down by once again trying to sweep the serious dangers posed under the rug."

Other groups, like the Natural Resources Defense Council argue that the State Department's assessment didn't go far enough. According to Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, international program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, the administration "failed to do its homework" on the pipeline's effect. "It is utterly beyond me how the administration can claim the pipeline will have 'no significant impacts' if they haven't bothered to do in-depth studies around the issues of contention," she said in a statement Friday. "The public has made their concerns clear and the administration seems to have ignored them. If permitted, the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will be a dirty legacy that will haunt President Obama and Secretary Clinton for years to come." [Read: Do Americans care about climate change anymore?]

Before Friday's announcement, hundreds of environmentalists had been arrested in Washington while protesting the project. And already let down by Obama's energy and environmental policies, some environmentalist groups have said that they would sit out the 2012 election if President Obama doesn't side with them to block the pipeline. NASA scientist James Hansen, who's been on the forefront of climate change science, told Climatewire that if the administration approves the pipeline, "it will confirm that Obama was just greenwashing all along, like the other well-oiled coal-fired politicians, with no real intention of solving the addiction." [Read about the effect of the climate change debate on the 2012 presidential election.]

But, even despite all the recent environmental howling, with today's announcement, it looks even more likely that the Keystone XL pipeline will get the okay. So, apart from being a test on Obama, the final decision will be a measure of just how much force the environmentalism movement still has in Washington.

  • See a slide show of 10 reasons Americans aren't talking about climate change.
  • Check out our collection of political cartoons on oil and gas prices.
  • Read about the effect of the climate change debate on the 2012 presidential election.