President Obama's appointment of Democratic adviser John Podesta, an opponent of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, to the White House could foretell a rejection of the controversial Canada-to-Texas pipeline, environmental groups said Tuesday.
Podesta, former President Bill Clinton's chief of staff and the man who headed Obama's transition team, is leaving the top post of the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, for a new White House role focusing on climate change.
Obama has vowed to lead an active White House on the issue — the president said in June he would rely on his executive authority to push climate-friendly policies while Congress remains gridlocked.
Environmental groups characterized the move as a victory, suggesting it showed that the White House might be crafting a strategy to defend a potential rejection of the Keystone pipeline, which would ship crude oil from Canada's tar sands to Texas.
"If one was reading the tea leaves from a distance, this seems like a very good sign," said Jamie Henn, spokesman with climate advocacy group 350.org. "I can't imagine a way that [Podesta] would recommend President Obama should build the pipeline."
Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, applauded the appointment, noting that Podesta "knows the danger of our reliance on dirty fuels like tar sands."
The office of Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., one of Keystone's strongest Capitol Hill boosters, said Podesta's appointment spelled trouble for the pipeline.
"John Podesta is a very astute political strategist and lobbyist, and he's also on record opposing the [Keystone] pipeline. That of course raises red flags that the Keystone decision will be made on political grounds rather than on its merits, despite the will of Congress and the American people who support the project by a large majority," said spokesman Don Canton.
But Keystone opponents shouldn't be chalking up a victory, despite Podesta's personal leanings on the project, said Daniel J. Weiss, who leads the energy and climate program at the Center for American Progress.
"Podesta opposes #keystone but he will be an honest broker," Weiss tweeted Tuesday.
Podesta's arrival shouldn't equate to Keystone's death knell, said Michael Whatley, executive vice president of the Consumers Energy Alliance, a collection of oil and energy-consuming businesses.
“Doesn't change one thing. The Keystone XL pipeline is still in the country's interest," he said.
Keystone has been in administrative limbo for more than five years. The State Department is finalizing an environmental review, which will be used to decide whether the project is in the national interest.
The pipeline's supporters say it would bring jobs and strengthen energy security by bringing crude from Canada. But detractors say it would devastate the climate by facilitating production of carbon-rich oil sands, adding that jobs creation would be negligible and saying much of the oil sands are destined for export.
Obama also has questioned Keystone's effects on jobs and whether the oil sands it would transport would remain in the United States. Still, he has waffled on the decision, which pits his vocal environmental backers against some union supporters and an energy industry that has been critical of White House policies.
Whether adding Podesta, a vocal opponent of the thick, carbon-intensive oil sands that Keystone would haul from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, to the president's inner circle will push Obama toward nixing the pipeline is not clear.
What's fairly evident is Podesta's opposition to the pipeline.
In a June 2010 speech titled, "'Greening' the tar sands," Podesta said policymakers need to shift away from fossil fuels because they boost greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change.
"We need to do our best to absorb the weight of that fact and incorporate it into our decisions," he said in the speech.
Under Podesta's leadership, the Center for American Progress openly advocated for a Keystone rejection.
"At a time when the United States should be doing everything in its power to reduce carbon dioxide pollution and speed the transition to cleaner fuels, the Keystone XL pipeline would be a step backward," the think tank said in August 2011 when it criticized the State Department's preliminary findings that Keystone would not significantly exacerbate carbon emissions.
The State report is currently at the center of the Keystone debate. Obama said in June that he would nix the pipeline if it "significantly exacerbates" carbon pollution, which the draft report said it wouldn't do.
But State's internal watchdog is looking into green groups' claims of bias by the outside contractor who conducted the review, as it had previously worked for Keystone builder TransCanada Corp.
Henn acknowledged that Obama could use that report, if it comes out of the State Department largely unchanged in its final version, as political cover to approve Keystone.
Still, he said Podesta's addition made that seem a less likely route, noting the ex-Clinton aide is a skilled politico who might have been brought on board to smooth a path for rejection while trying not to anger the Republicans, centrist Democrats and industry, energy and labor groups that support Keystone.
"I think that perhaps one of the things the White House is worried about is how it can say no to Keystone and not take too much of a political hit from the right," Henn said. "I think that they're probably figuring out a way to say no to the pipeline and say yes to something else."