Keystone Greens See Pipeline As Crucial Test For Obama

This week's North American Summit is refocusing attention on the proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline. The issue's proved to be complicated for President Obama to navigate among green activists.

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The controversial Keystone XL Pipeline project has another obstacle. Yesterday, a Nebraska judge rejected a move by that state's governor to route the pipeline through his state. The project has already been held up for years while the Obama administration tries to decide whether the pipeline is in the U.S. national interest. Some environmental activists have seized on this decision as a test of the president's commitment to combating global warming, and this week President Obama tried to reframe the issue as one that is bigger than a single pipeline.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper is eager to see a U.S. approve the Keystone XL pipeline so more heavy crude can flow from his country's western tar sands to America's refineries on the Gulf Coast. Asked about the pipeline after meeting with Harper yesterday, President Obama was noncommittal. He's worried about any move that might contribute to climate change.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The science is irrefutable. We are already seeing severe weather patterns increase. That has consequences for businesses, for our jobs, for our families.

HORSLEY: Of course, the proposed pipeline is hardly the only source of fossil fuel that contributes to global warming, though tar sands oil is especially dirty. In recent years, stopping Keystone XL has become the singular rallying cry for many climate activists.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: No XL. We love climate. No XL. We love climate...

HORSLEY: Jamie Henn is a co-founder of the environmental group 350.org which began protesting the pipeline outside the White House two and half years ago. Hundreds of people will be back at the White House in 10 days for another anti-pipeline demonstration.

JAMIE HENN: This is just such a clear cut and dry line in the sand. So it's been incredibly inspiring to see ranchers, farmers, indigenous leaders, young people come together. And I think it's really put a lot of new energy into the environmental movement, an energy that will be helpful in moving forward the president's agenda in times to come.

HORSLEY: Keystone offers an attractive target. Because it would cross an international border, it needs State Department approval and that gives the administration unusual leverage.

Still, Paul Bledsoe, who was a climate adviser in the Clinton administration, thinks the focus on this one pipeline is overblown.

PAUL BLEDSOE: In a perfect world, if you're concerned only about climate change and want to develop oil sands? Probably not. Will the pipeline decision to determine whether oil sands get developed? No, it won't. The pipeline decision will not determine whether that resource gets developed.

HORSLEY: The State Department's own environmental review concluded that even if the pipeline is not built, tar sands oil will find its way to market by truck or rail so long as the price of oil stays high enough.

Bledsoe, who's now with the German Marshall Fund, says the administration has other tools to combat climate change including steps to reduce demand for oil. In Obama's first term, he negotiated strict new fuel economy standards for cars. And this week, the president announced plans to extend that to heavy-duty trucks.

OBAMA: That reduces carbon pollution even more, cuts down on businesses' fuel costs, which should pay off in lower prices for consumers. So it's not just a win-win. It's a win-win-win - you got three wins.

HORSLEY: The administration is also drafting new rules to limit carbon pollution form power plants, a huge source of greenhouse gases. The Supreme Court is set to hear a challenge to those rules next week. But Bledsoe says it's that broader effort that will really determine this president's climate legacy.

BLEDSOE: The Keystone approval or disapproval will probably not be seen in history as the critical notion. His ability to educate the American people about what really matters in climate policy and what the country needs to do to have a leadership position, that could be for the ages.

HORSLEY: This week, an editorial in the influential journal Science argues it's time to move forward with the Keystone XL pipeline, while tapping some of the resulting revenues to fund a cleaner energy future.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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