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President Obama implies he will rule on Keystone XL pipeline

November 1, 2011 |  7:49 pm


President Obama inserted himself into the increasingly contentious fight over building the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, implying in a television interview that the ultimate decision about the pipeline’s fate would be his.

Keystone XL needs a so-called presidential permit from the State Department because it crosses a national border. Until now, the administration has said the department would decide whether to grant the permit, based in large part on an environmental impact statement and public comment.

But in an interview at the White House with Omaha’s KETV, the president said: "The State Department's in charge of analyzing this, because there's a pipeline coming in from Canada. They'll 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?”

As recently as Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney tried to distance Obama from the decision-making on Keystone. “This is a decision that will be made by the State Department, or is housed within the State Department,” Carney said. 

The White House had no official comment on Obama’s remarks Tuesday. 

Environmentalists praised him for taking ownership of an issue that has increasingly alienated his base and for acknowledging their concerns about the pipeline.

For more than a year, Keystone XL has been mired in controversy. TransCanada, the oil industry and several labor unions have said the project would create thousands of jobs in the United States and reduce the country’s dependence on oil from hostile or unstable countries.

Environmentalists, including many Obama supporters, have argued that the extraction of the crude in Alberta lays waste to the land and increases greenhouse gas emissions. They caution that the proposed route would take the pipeline over the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, the main source of drinking and irrigation water in the High Plains states, and argue that the number of jobs created would be far fewer than the project's backers project.


Said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, international program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council: “The president recognized the very real concerns of millions of Americans with this dirty energy project. So, there can be only one decision. To reject the Keystone XL pipeline is the kind of leadership we hope the president will continue to show."

During his interview, Obama gave a glimpse into how difficult it may be to balance the demand for jobs and oil and the environmental risks of a massive pipeline running through the fragile Nebraska Sand Hills and the aquifer.

“We need to encourage domestic oil and natural gas 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.”

Obama added: “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’s so important to agriculture in Nebraska [is] 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.”

Environmentalists and other pipeline opponents plan a large rally Sunday in Washington, during which they will encircle the White House as a sign of protest against Keystone XL. 

In Nebraska, the pipeline is opposed by many politicians across the spectrum. Republican Gov. Dave Heineman called the Legislature into special session to deal with the controversy. Lawmakers are considering a bill that would give the state authority over pipeline locations.

For previous Times articles about the controversy, see: 

Proposed Keystone XL oil project draws a divisive line

Controversial pipeline moves closer to construction


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Shopping cart is dropped four stories -- onto woman's head

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-- Neela Banerjee in Washington 

Photo: Troy Wentz of Sterling, Neb., outside the state Capitol in Lincoln on Tuesday, the first day of the Legislature's special session on the pipeline proposal. Credit: Nati Harnik / Associated Press