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The National Journal (Washington, DC)

Turned Off by Obama, Young Enviros Look to EPA for Salvation

Olga Belogolova

For Arielle Klagsbrun, the Keystone XL pipeline is President Obama’s last chance.

Klagsbrun went door to door to elect Obama in 2008. On her 18th birthday, she voted for him. “When President Obama was elected, I was probably one of the most excited people in the whole world,” she told National Journal.

Three years later, Klagsbrun isn’t so excited. “It’s just not the same feeling as it was in 2008,” she said.

At a fundraiser in St. Louis earlier this month, she wasn’t listening to Obama anymore. She was interrupting him. Klagsbrun and a fellow student shouted at the president to stop the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline, a controversial 1,700-mile project to bring carbon-heavy tar-sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas.

“The Keystone XL is the moment for Obama to say, ‘Yes I am the person that you voted for,'” said Klagsbrun. “Should he veto the pipeline, a whole generation will be reinspired all around.”

The youth vote was critical to Obama’s election. An estimated 22 million Americans under the age of 30 voted in 2008 – the third-highest showing of young voters in U.S. history, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Young voters preferred Obama by a 2-1 margin.

Environmental activists oppose the pipeline project because extraction and production of tar-sands oil is much more damaging to the environment and emits more greenhouse gases than the processes for obtaining and processing conventional oil. Proponents argue that it would slash U.S. dependence on foreign oil and create thousands of U.S. jobs.

All signs point to the administration’s approval of the controversial project.

“We’re looking at it right now,” Obama told protesters who interrupted his speech on Wednesday at the University of Colorado in Denver. “No decision has been made. And I know your deep concern about it. So we will address it.”

In a tough political environment and leading up to the 2012 election in which the primary issue is jobs, experts and insiders say there’s no way the president will reject the project. A combined 91 percent of National Journal‘s Energy and Environment Insiders said earlier this month that Obama will give it the green light, with more than 70 percent predicting it would happen before the end of the year.

The State Department, which must decide whether to approve the project because it crosses international borders, held hearings across the country and in Washington this fall and hopes to make a decision by the end of the year.

“There’s going to be a huge uproar if the administration approves the pipeline,” said Stewart Boss, cochairman of the Sierra Student Coalition at the University of North Carolina. Though Boss, a junior at UNC, was too young to vote in 2008, he was certainly not short on the optimism and hope that drove his generation to the polls. Pending and past decisions such as the pipeline project, expanded drilling in the Arctic, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s stalled ozone-pollution rule, Boss said, are cases in which Obama doesn’t have the excuse of a divided government.

Boss and other environmentalists are putting their faith in the EPA instead of the White House. “More than any other person, [EPA Administrator] Lisa Jackson has been standing her ground on these climate and energy issues,” said Boss.

Jackson said this week that the EPA is close to completing its review of the State Department’s final environmental impact statement for the Keystone project. The EPA found an earlier draft “inadequate.”

“This is a pipeline that cuts our country literally in half," Jackson told a meeting of young environmental activists at Howard University on Thursday.

Many of these young activists regard Jackson as a true champion of environmental issues.

“We stand behind Lisa Jackson and the EPA and we are pushing for President Obama to stand behind her," said Maura Friedman, a University of Georgia student who organized the university’s Beyond Coal campaign.

"We were promised a lot of things by President Obama on environment that haven’t been delivered," Friedman added. "These are things that we’re going to remember when we go to the polls.”

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