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Former US Geological Survey head endorses Keystone pipeline

Juliet Eilperin

WASHINGTON -- The former head of the U.S. Geological Survey endorsed the idea of building the Keystone XL pipeline Thursday, arguing in an editorial that blocking the pipeline would lead to rail and truck transports that would be more environmentally damaging.

Marcia McNutt, who headed USGS from 2009 to 2013 and now serves as editor-in-chief of the journal Science, wrote in an editorial, "I believe it is time to move forward on the Keystone XL pipeline" in exchange for getting Canadian officials to reduce their oil industry's carbon emissions.

McNutt, who also served as the Interior Department's senior science adviser, is the latest former Obama administration official to come out in favor of the pipeline in recent weeks. Former interior secretary Ken Salazar said Feb. 5 that he thought the administration should approve the project, which would transport oil from Canada's oil sands region to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The idea of Canada compensating for the pipeline's climate impact has been publicly contemplated for months, but neither Canadian nor American officials have ever specified what policies would satisfy the Obama administration.

One of the primary objections environmentalists have raised against the project is that it would accelerate global warming because of the high amount of energy needed to extract oil from the deposits in Alberta.

President Barack Obama has repeatedly raised the prospect of collaborating with Canada on carbon reductions when discussing the pipeline.

In a July interview with The New York Times, the president said Canada could "potentially be doing more to mitigate carbon release," but added in that same interview, "We haven't seen specific ideas or plans."

On Wednesday, after meeting with Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper as part of a North American leaders' summit in Mexico, Obama told reporters that they "discussed a shared interest of working together around greenhouse gas emissions."

He added that the issue of climate change "has to affect all of our decisions at this stage" regarding Keystone XL. "So I welcome the work that we can do together with Canada.""

In an interview this month, Canada's ambassador to the U.S., Gary Doer, said his country was "open to moving ahead" on climate change, including when it comes to the oil and gas industry. But he said Canada would not adopt more stringent rules on oil and gas than those in the United States.

"We don't want our rule on operations in British Columbia to be one way when you're going to have others in Pennsylvania," Doer said, noting that the oil ends up competing on the same market.

Doer noted that Canada is already pushing to phase out coal-fired power plants and Alberta has a limited carbon tax. But emissions from the oil sands have pushed Canada's greenhouse gas emissions well above the target it originally agreed to under the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

When asked whether the United States had broached the idea of Canada offering a new climate initiative as part of the discussion over the Keystone pipeline, a State Department official who asked not to be identified to discuss the decision-making process said, "There is no quid pro quo."

In the Science editorial, McNutt argues that while she has sought to reduce her personal use of fossil fuels, she has become convinced that Alberta's heavy crude deposits would be extracted and exported because "truck and rail transports are viable alternatives to a pipeline between Canada and the United States."

She suggests that "President Obama, who has yet to decide on the pipeline, could put conditions on approval that require Canadian authorities to reduce the carbon intensity of extracting the tar from the oil sands and processing it into a liquid petroleum product."

"As part of a compromise to allow the project to move forward, let's now insist on an income stream from Keystone XL revenues to support investment in renewable energy sources to secure our energy future," McNutt added.

The timing for the administration's decision on the project remains uncertain, especially now that on Wednesday, a Nebraska judge struck down a state law allowing Gov. Dave Heineman to approve the pipeline's route through the state.


By Juliet Eilperin
The Washington Post