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Policy: Environment & Energy

White House tempers expectations of Keystone XL boosters

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The White House quickly hemmed the expectations of advocates of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline who cheered a long-awaited State Department environmental review that appeared to inch the project closer to approval.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said on a pair of political talk shows that the agency's finding that the Canada-to-Texas pipeline wouldn't greatly affect climate change is just one piece of information for the eventual decision President Obama will make.

McDonough told NBC's "Meet the Press" that Obama will "insulate this process from politics," and noted that the next step -- a 90-day interagency review to determine whether the pipeline is in the national interest -- will provide more opportunity for comment across the administration.

"He laid out his view on this last summer, which is that his view is that if this is to go forward, it should not significantly exacerbate the climate crisis in this country. ... The Friday report is an important input into that process. We'll hear from other Cabinet secretaries," said McDonough, who delivered a similar message on CBS' "Face the Nation."

The final environmental impact statement McDonough referred to concluded, much like earlier studies, that demand was strong enough to bring oil sands to market with or without Keystone XL. Therefore, the pipeline would not facilitate oil sands growth and, in turn, would not significantly boost greenhouse gas emissions.

That seemed to be cause for celebration for the pipeline's business, union, centrist Democrat, Republican and Canadian boosters, who said it pointed toward green-lighting a project that's awaited action from Obama for more than five years.

"We view the [final environmental impact statement] as positive. After more than five years and five reviews, the conclusion from DOS has been that KXL is safe to build," Sabrina Fang, a spokeswoman with the American Petroleum Institute, said Monday.

But other pipeline proponents are more cautious.

Matt Letourneau, a spokesman with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy, said that his organization has always viewed the environmental impact statement as a "factual, scientific" process. The next steps, however, are trickier, he said.

"Where we run into the problems is when you run into the subjective part of the process, and that is the phase we are now entering," he told the Washington Examiner on Monday. "The fight on this is just really beginning. The [environmental impact statement] is just a piece of this process."

Green groups saw a victory in the environmental report as well. Although the State Department didn't agree with their arguments that Keystone XL would drive oil sands growth, those groups said the report was the first time the department acknowledged that the pipeline would contribute to climate change.

That's key, those groups argued, as Obama said in June that he would reject the pipeline if it "significantly exacerbates the problem of carbon pollution" — a point Matt Lehrich, a White House spokesman, reiterated over the weekend.

"The president has clearly stated that the project will be in the national interest only if it does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement includes a range of estimates of the project's climate impacts, and that information will now need to be closely evaluated by Secretary [of State John] Kerry and other relevant agency heads in the weeks ahead," Lehrich said.

Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs at the State Department, warned much the same about the environmental impact statement in a Friday media call. She noted that Kerry, who has been vocal about climate change in his Senate career and since arriving at Foggy Bottom last year, has yet to take a look at the report.

Jones said that the report did not offer a bottom-line number on how much Keystone XL would contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

"The specific answer that you are looking for — that is not in this document," she said.

Asked again in a different manner, Jones said, "The certainty that you're trying to present, I think, isn't there. ... This is about looking at technical data and looking at how to model it."

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