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So What Exactly Is Obama's Red Line On Keystone XL?

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WASHINGTON -- In the lead-up to President Barack Obama's heavily billed speech on climate policy in June, the big question among members of the White House press corps was what, exactly, he would say about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

By that point, the fault lines on Keystone were pretty clear. Congressional Republicans were demanding it be green-lighted. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney had bludgeoned the president over his non-approval throughout the 2012 campaign. Environmental groups, meanwhile, had successful harnessed grassroots opposition to the pipeline. But they hadn't managed to flip supportive Democrats.

The biggest remaining question mark, really, was where Obama stood. He had tasked the State Department with studying the Keystone proposal in depth, weighing its economic and environmental impacts. On the eve of his speech, people wanted to know if he would jump ahead of that review.

An hour before Obama took the stage at Georgetown University, I got the answer. A senior White House official told me that Obama would outline his position on Keystone during the speech. Moreover, the president would be setting an explicit standard that had to be met to garner his support. The entirety of the senior White House official's statement, as emailed to me, is below. (Emphasis mine)

As the executive order on Keystone contemplates, the environmental impacts will be important criteria used in the determination of whether the Keystone pipeline application will ultimately be approved at the completion of the State Department decision process. In today’s speech, the President will make clear that the State Department should approve the pipeline only if it will not lead to a net increase in overall greenhouse gas emissions.

And thus, a breaking news headline was born. The president would demand greenhouse gas neutrality on Keystone.

Or so it seemed. During the speech, the president never mentioned greenhouse gas neutrality. Instead, he chose a less stringent standard. The relevant portion of the White House transcript of the speech is below. (Emphasis mine)

Now, I know there’s been, for example, a lot of controversy surrounding the proposal to build a pipeline, the Keystone pipeline, that would carry oil from Canadian tar sands down to refineries in the Gulf. And the State Department is going through the final stages of evaluating the proposal. That’s how it’s always been done. But I do want to be clear: Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.

Certainly, there is a difference between a project having no "net increase in overall greenhouse gas emissions" and one that doesn't "significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." The key word being "significantly."

So which one is the White House's position?

With the State Department concluding last week that Keystone would not significantly affect overall greenhouse gas emissions because the oil will be transported through other means if the pipeline isn't built, an answer is now more pertinent than ever.

On Friday afternoon, Matt Lehrich, a spokesman for the president, issued a statement on the State Department's report that helped illuminate where the administration stands. His response is below:

The President has clearly stated that the project will be in the national interest only if it does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement includes a range of estimates of the project’s climate impacts, and that information will now need to be closely evaluated by Secretary Kerry and other relevant agency heads in the weeks ahead. A decision on whether the project is in the national interest will be made only after careful consideration of the SEIS and other pertinent information, comments from the public, and views of other agency heads.

Once again, the White House is asserting that the project can't "significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution" or the president won't approve it. That position relies on the vague definition of what is significant. And it stands to reason that as agencies and the public continue to weigh in on the project's merits, the president will clarify what he considers a problematic amount of carbon pollution related to Keystone.

But it also raises the question of whether that initial statement last summer from a senior White House official about the project being greenhouse gas-neutral is now non-operative.

On Monday, an Obama administration answered that question, arguing that the standard for Keystone's approval has consistently and logically been the one used by the president in his speech.

"The President clearly stated in his speech at Georgetown in June that 'national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.' That’s the exact same standard we’ve reiterated ever since -– it hasn’t changed," the official said.

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