President Obama strongly suggested Tuesday that he will make the final decision on whether the administration will approve the proposed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.
His remarks come a day after White House press secretary Jay Carney appeared to put some space between Obama and the controversial project by stating “This is a decision that will be made by the State Department.”
But Obama, in an interview with a Nebraska TV station from the White House, indicated that the State Department – which is leading the federal review of TransCanada Corp.’s plan – would put the final decision in his hands.
“[State] will be giving me a report over the next several months and, you know, my general attitude is, what is best for the American people? What’s best for our economy both short-term and long-term? But also, what's best for the health of the American people?,” Obama told KETV’s Rob McCartney.
“Because we don’t want for example aquifers . . . adversely affected. Folks in Nebraska obviously would be directly impacted, and so we want to make sure we’re taking the long view on these issues,” Obama added.
Obama said he will weigh those concerns against energy security needs when recommendations cross his desk.
“We need to encourage domestic natural gas and oil production. We need to make sure that we have energy security and aren’t just relying on Middle East sources. But there’s a way of doing that and still making sure that the health and safety of the American people and folks in Nebraska are protected, and that’s how I’ll be measuring these recommendations when they come to me,” he said.
The proposed $7 billion pipeline would bring crude from Alberta's massive oil sands projects to Gulf Coast refineries.
Business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute are lobbying in favor of the project, arguing it would create scores of jobs while improving energy security by expanding imports from a friendly neighbor. Canada is already the largest supplier of oil to the U.S.
TransCanada claims the pipeline would create 20,000 direct jobs and many more spinoff jobs and is emphasizing that it would operate under strict safety standards.
But environmental groups, which have called the jobs estimates inflated, oppose the pipeline due to greenhouse gas emissions, forest damage and other impacts from oil sands projects.
They also fear pipeline spills that could contaminate the Ogallala aquifer in Nebraska and other states along the route.
Environmental groups are planning a major demonstration at the White House on Nov. 6 to call on Obama to reject the project. Climate activist Bill McKibben, a key organizer of the protests, welcomed Obama’s comments.
“Only a day ago the President's press secretary said the State Department would make the call. Now, it's very good to see the President taking full ownership of this decision and indicating that the environment will be the top priority going forward,” said McKibben, the founder of 350.org.
Obama’s comment about State providing him with recommendations in the “over the next several months” also may signal that the timeline for a federal decision on the project is slipping. State has said it hoped to make a decision on the project by the end of this year.
But Reuters, citing an unnamed administration official, reported last week that the year-end target may slide.
The decision looms at a time when the sour economy is shaping up as the dominant issue in next year’s presidential election.
Asked in the interview if the potential for jobs from the project will affect his decision, Obama replied:
“You know it does, but I think folks in Nebraska like all across the country aren’t going to say to themselves, we’ll take a few thousand jobs if it means that our kids are potentially drinking water that would damage their health or if rich land that is so important to agriculture in Nebraska ends up being adversely affected, because those create jobs, and you know when somebody gets sick that’s a cost that the society has to bear as well. So these are all things that you have to take a look at when you make these decisions.”