WASHINGTON -- American authorities should only approve TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline if they're certain it won't "significantly exacerbate" greenhouse gas emissions, U.S. President Barack Obama said Tuesday as he unveiled a national plan to combat climate change.
In a highly anticipated speech on his second-term climate objectives, Obama weighed in on Keystone despite reports he would steer clear of the controversial project because it's in the midst of a State Department review.
"Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation's interest," he said.
"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."
Keystone XL has become a flashpoint for U.S. environmentalists, who have branded it a symbol of "dirty oil" and have spent the past two years pitching a fierce public relations battle against the project. The pipeline would transport millions of barrels of oilsands bitumen a week from Alberta to Texas refineries.
The Canadian government, meantime, has been pouring millions into lobbying efforts in the U.S. capital in recent months. TransCanada CEO Russ Girling said recently he's confident Keystone XL will ultimately win approval.
The State Department's draft environmental report on the pipeline, released in March, suggested Keystone XL's impact on greenhouse gas emissions would be minimal. But the powerful Environmental Protection Agency later questioned that finding.
TransCanada is pleased with the president's remarks because "the almost five-year review of the project has already repeatedly found that these criteria are satisfied," Girling said in a statement released Tuesday.
"These reviews have found that, from a global perspective, the decision whether to build the proposed project would be unlikely to substantially affect the rate of extraction or combustion of Canadian oilsands crude and its global impact."
The alternatives would be worse, Girling said: "The oil will move to market by truck, rail and tanker, which will significantly add to global greenhouse gas emissions."
Joe Oliver, Canada's natural resources minister, cited the State Department report in saying the U.S. already has evidence Keystone XL won't have an impact on emissions levels.
"That's what the U.S. State Department itself had concluded, in a 3,500-page report which was the second major independent comprehensive study that they had done on this subject," Oliver said in Toronto.
"This pipeline has been the most studied pipeline in the history of the world."
TransCanada officials have long held that even if Alberta oilsands production doubled, the carbon emissions would be "immaterial" to global greenhouse gas levels.
They say Canada accounts for only two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the oilsands make up only five per cent of that total.
In the wake of Obama's remarks, the question now arises: Who will determine whether the pipeline would result in increased greenhouse gas emissions?
"I guess it will be Obama, based on which arguments he considers most persuasive," Danny Harvey, a climate change expert at the University of Toronto, said in an interview.
Harvey added TransCanada will likely argue that in a shorter time frame -- while it's having trouble getting its product to market via pipelines in Canada and the U.S. -- the impact on greenhouse gas emissions would be a drop in the bucket.
-- The Canadian Press