Obama sets strict test for Keystone XL Pipeline

WASHINGTON -- President Obama set a high bar for approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, declaring for the first time that he would let the project go forward only if it does not “significantly increase” emissions of greenhouse gases.

The pledge came in a speech on climate policy in which Obama laid out a series of executive actions his administration will take over the next several years to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that are major causes of climate change.

The most significant of those actions was a directive to the Environmental Protection Agency to develop by next June the first U.S. regulations designed to cut carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. The new rules, which would go into effect the following year, would probably require the closing of some coal-fired plants.

Because power plants emit 40% of the country’s carbon dioxide, cutting their emissions is the biggest-single way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The move is likely to boost electricity costs in some parts of the country.

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Obama’s overall strategy leans heavily on executive-branch actions, an acknowledgment that the current Congress will not take action to address climate change. Obama said however that his plan does not preclude congressional action and that he would be willing to work with those who wanted to address climate change.

The announcement on Keystone would give Obama a reason to block the Alberta-to-Texas pipeline project should he decide to do so, but does not necessarily commit him. He left unspecified how big an increase in emissions he would consider “significant” and whose calculations of the impact he would most heed.

The State Department’s most recent environmental assessment of Keystone XL said that the unconventional, tarlike oil involved in the project emits 17% more greenhouse gases than conventional crude oil from the moment a barrel is extracted to the time it is burned in a car engine. The Environmental Protection Agency said the State Department’s analysis badly underestimated the emissions.

Opponents of the pipeline said they were hopeful about Obama’s pledge.

“This is an appropriate standard that the president appears to be setting on Keystone XL. The president is saying what the science has always demanded,” said Bill McKibben, founder of the environmental activist group, 350.org, and a leader of the charge against Keystone.

“It's encouraging news for certain."

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Republicans quickly pounced on the speech as a misguided priority that will kill jobs.

“The president’s war on affordable energy is a war on jobs,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.). “We have weathered a very difficult economy the last five years and we are still not out of the woods. Punishing abundant American energy will threaten jobs, hobble our manufacturing resurgence, and cause electricity costs to go up – hurting folks in Middle America the most.”

Obama spoke at Georgetown University, in the sweltering sunshine of the Washington summer, frequently mopping his forehead as he talked.

The effort to combat climate change would take years, he said, and must become a higher priority. Recent studies that show that 97% of climate scientists accept research showing that the planet is warming and that human activity, most notably the burning of fossil fuels, is the main cause, he noted.

And he jabbed at members of Congress who deny climate change, a group which includes a large percentage of Republican lawmakers.

“We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society,” he said.

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neela.banerjee@latimes.com

Twitter: @neelaeast