Obama on Colbert: What he said about Keystone XL

During an appearance on the Colbert Report, President Obama tip-toed around his position on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Republicans are likely to push Obama to approve the pipeline when they control the US House and Senate next year.

Susan Walsh/AP
President Barack Obama talks with Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report during a taping of the program at George Washington University in Washington.

Stephen Colbert, America’s biggest conservative (with tongue planted firmly in cheek), wants to know where President Obama stands on the Keystone XL pipeline. But Mr. Obama is staying largely mum on what is sure to be a priority of next year’s GOP-led Congress.  

Republicans are gearing up to push for construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline when they take over Congress next year. But the pipeline still requires presidential approval, and last night in an appearance on The Colbert Report television show President Obama threw water on the idea that he’d simply rubber stamp the project.

Obama appears to be leaning against approving the pipeline, the Washington Post reported in November, but Republican legislative maneuvering could force his hand. On Tuesday, he treaded lightly around the issue.

"We've got to make sure that it's not adding to the problem of carbon and climate change because these young people are going to have to live in a world where we already know temperatures are going up, and Keystone is a potential contributor of that," Obama told Mr. Colbert in a student-filled auditorium at George Washington University in Washington. "We have to examine that, and we have to weigh that against the amount of jobs that it's actually going to create, which aren't a lot."

The Keystone XL pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of Alberta oil sands from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries every day. A State Department report indicated construction would yield 42,100 direct and indirect jobs, with 35 permanent jobs when the 1,200-mile pipeline is completely built.

Environmentalists object to the pipeline because it would ferry oil sands, an emissions-heavy source of energy and an exacerbator of climate change. The State Department report, meanwhile, suggests the pipeline would not have a significant environmental impact.

Proponents of the pipeline – industry, Republicans, and a handful of moderate Democrats – argue that it would create jobs and boost US energy security. Canadian oil is preferable to relying on the volatile Middle East for crude, they say.

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“Six years of review and five positive environmental reviews from the State Department are enough,” said Jack Gerard, CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, in a call with reporters last Friday. “President Obama can end the delay today.”

But Obama downplayed the potential benefits the US could reap from the pipeline during his interview with satirically-conservative Stephen Colbert.

"It's good for Canada,” Obama acknowledged, and “it could create a couple thousand jobs in the initial construction of the pipeline. But we've got to measure that against whether or not it is going to contribute to an overall warming of the planet that could be disastrous.”

Environmental protections and climate change mitigation have become central to Obama’s legacy and his second term goals. His EPA Clean Power Plan aims to slash US emissions 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, and a recent bilateral deal with mega-emitter China promised even deeper cuts. The administration is also looking ahead to next year’s global climate talks in Paris, where Obama hopes to set an clean-energy example for other nations to follow.

Republicans pan Obama’s climate agenda as job-killing and excessive. GOP leaders have signalled a bill approving Keystone XL will top their energy agenda when they take over in January.

The most recent action on Keystone came in November, when recently-defeated Senate Energy Committee Chairwoman Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana pushed a bill to approve the pipeline. The legislation failed by one vote in the Democratic-led Senate, and the vote was seen primarily as a last-ditch effort to save Ms. Landrieu’s floundering re-election prospects. Landrieu lost her Dec. 6 run-off to Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) of Louisiana, who was able to pass a comparable Keystone approval bill through the GOP-led House.

But even if Republicans pass a bill authorizing Keystone approval, the president could still veto it, and its route through Nebraska could add further complications.

The Nebraska supreme court is currently considering whether or not the state’s Public Service Commission needs to review the pipeline before it runs through the state. A decision is expected this month, but a PSC review could tie up the pipeline for even longer.

"Keystone is going through an evaluation process,” Obama told Colbert. “Right now it's being held up by a court in Nebraska, which is making a decision about whether the route is legal or not.”

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