Can the New EPA Chief Stop Obama Approving the Keystone XL Pipeline?

Gina McCarthy's promotion at the EPA will not allay fears that a recent State Department report means KXL is now a done deal

Environmentalists got some bad news when the State Department released a report on Friday - a full month earlier than had been anticipated - saying that there are no convincing environmental reasons that the Keystone XL pipeline should not be built.

This just two weeks after thousands of demonstrators gathered at the National Mall for what has been called the largest climate rally ever. Environmental groups have joined in a rare united front to block the pipeline. If built, activists predict that the pipeline will hugely increase greenhouse gas emissions and reverse the progress that has been made in recent years toward switching to renewable sources of energy.

The usually measured Sierra Club president, Michael Brune, called last week's State Department report "nothing short of malpractice", and suggested that the president toss it in the garbage. In an email interview, spokesperson Daniel Kessler characterized the pipeline as "a boondoggle perpetuated by monied interests" whose impact on the climate would be "horrific".

But there has been a lot of pressure on the administration from the fossil fuel industry to ratify the pipeline. According to Marty Durbin, executive vice-president of the American Petroleum Institute:

"The latest impact statement from the State Department puts this important, job-creating project one step closer to reality."

A little over a month ago, Nebraska's Republican governor, Dave Heineman, removed a major hurdle to the construction of Keystone when he approved a new path for the pipeline - one that avoids the environmentally sensitive Sand Hills region. President Obama had rejected an earlier route because of the state's objections, and the dangers of a spill to underground water in the critical Ogallala aquifer.

Obama's decision on the pipeline will be seen as a litmus test of the direction which he will take on the environment in his second term. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (Democrat, Rhode Island) said that last month's historic climate rally was intended to "get the fellow in the White House to follow up on the wonderful things he's said in speeches recently and put a really strong regulatory regime in."

But if Friday's report is any indication of the administration thinking, the president may be preparing to give the controversial pipeline the green light. While the 2,000-word document makes no policy recommendations, it does give Obama a degree of political cover should he decide - as seems increasingly likely - to approve the project: the pipeline that would bring 800,000 barrels a day of crude oil from the tar sands of northern Alberta to refineries on the US Gulf coast.

The State Department document claims that "the proposed project is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands." Many outside observers disagree, saying that if Keystone were nixed by the administration, it would significantly slow the exploitation of the Canadian tar sand reserves. Alternate pipeline routes, which would take the oil to ports in Canada, have faced fierce opposition in British Columbia, and would undoubtedly be challenged in court.

Some environmentalists were encouraged by the president's nomination Monday of Gina McCarthy for the post of EPA administrator, to replace the outgoing Lisa Jackson. McCarthy served as a top official in charge of air quality at the EPA and has the reputation of being a fighter for tougher environmental standards.

She is expected to face resistance from congressional Republicans and the coal industry, which have consistently opposed regulations. Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen's energy program, told me:

"The Gina McCarthy pick is outstanding. The question is: what support the president will give her."

Some observers believe that Lisa Jackson decided to leave her post as head of the EPA because the administration failed to back her efforts to draft stronger ozone limits and emissions standards for power plants. As I reported in the Guardian in January, there was also speculation that Jackson, an opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline, resigned because the president had already decided to approve the project.

The president is expected to announce his final decision on Keystone XL pipeline in the Spring. If it is true that his mind is already made up - to approve it - there may be little that Gina McCarthy, or Secretary of State John Kerry (who is known as a "climate hawk"), can do to change the administration's course.

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