Environmentalists are praising Secretary of State John Kerry in hopes of burying, figuratively speaking, the Keystone XL pipeline.
Bill Burton, a former press secretary to President Barack Obama who is helping a coalition of environmental groups opposed to the project, calls Kerry, “one of the great climate leaders of his generation.”
Dan Weiss, climate strategy director at the Center for American Progress, put Kerry on par with environmental icons like the naturalist John Muir and anti-pollution writer Rachel Carson. Academy Award winner Jared Leto, along with other activists, sent a letter last week urging him to take a stand against Keystone as he did against the Vietnam War as a young veteran in testimony to a Senate committee in 1971.
“We dare to believe that it’s not just an accident of history that this recommendation falls to you,” the group wrote.
The accolades are piling up just as Kerry, who was known as a leader in the fight against climate change when he was a senator, takes a more direct role in Keystone’s review. The activists want their flattery to get them somewhere: a recommendation from Kerry that Obama scuttle the proposed project.
The pipeline from Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska -- most of which would be buried at a depth of greater than 3 feet -- has become a benchmark for environmental groups to judge the administration’s commitment on climate change.
At a Feb. 26 press conference with reporters, Kerry said he had intentionally stayed away from Keystone so that he could be seen as an impartial judge as to whether the project is in the national interest.
“I want to do it with a complete tabula rasa approach,” he said, meaning he was looking at it from a clean slate. Now, he said, “I’m entering a very intensive evaluation.”
Kerry has elevated climate change as a priority for the department, making it the subject of his first policy guidance to U.S. diplomats. A March 7 message from the secretary calls for progress on international agreements to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and says addressing the threat to the climate has “special significance” to the agency.
The letter doesn’t mention Keystone. On that issue, Kerry thus far has left it to deputies to direct the process, including an environmental review that found the pipeline wasn’t likely to increase the risks of climate change because Alberta’s oil sands would be developed anyway.
That conclusion presents a challenge for opponents because Obama has said Keystone’s climate impact will be critical to his final decision. Environmentalists who argue the report underplayed Keystone’s importance are counting on Kerry’s sensitivity to the climate threat to push him to reach a different conclusion.
In some cases the praise comes with a warning. If Kerry recommends approval of Keystone, his reputation as a climate hero will be “very severely damaged,” said Elijah Zarlin, a senior campaign manager for Credo Action, a public advocacy group that opposes the pipeline.
Cindy Schild, downstream operations senior manager at the American Petroleum Institute, said Kerry’s fears about global warming shouldn’t matter on Keystone given that his department’s own review said the project would have only a negligible effect on the climate.
Kerry has been clear about what he sees as the risks of a warming planet -- including in a Feb. 16 speech in Jakarta where he equated the threat to weapons of mass destruction.
At the same time, he hasn’t been at all clear on how he views Keystone.
In the Senate in 2012, Kerry voted against a Republican-backed amendment to a highway spending bill that would have approved Keystone. He left it to colleagues including the late Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, to lead the debate against the measure.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee he led as chairman didn’t hold a hearing on Keystone even though the State Department it oversees was in charge of evaluating the line because it crosses an international border.
Kerry may have kept quiet because he thought he might eventually play a role in the outcome, said Paul Bledsoe, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a Washington-based group that promotes transatlantic cooperation.
The fact that Kerry probably isn’t going to seek office again may mean he’s less concerned about the political consequences of angering environmentalists, an important Democratic constituency, Bledsoe said.
He said the thinks the decision will be made “on the basis of the facts,” and that flattery will be irrelevant. Kerry and Obama will be under pressure though to take additional steps to reduce the risks of climate change.
Michael Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, said Kerry is likely to take direction from Obama, who has said he’ll make the final call.
“The Keystone pipeline is one of the defining elements of Obama’s energy legacy,” Webber said in an interview. “John Kerry doesn’t have an energy legacy.”
The State Department says Kerry will weigh environmental, diplomatic and economic issues in judging whether Keystone is in the U.S. national interest before making a recommendation to Obama. He has no deadline for reaching a conclusion. Eight federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, have 90 days to advise Kerry and the State Department.
Environmentalists were especially encouraged by Kerry’s Feb. 16 speech in Indonesia.
“The fact is that climate change, if left unchecked, will wipe out many more communities from the face of the Earth,” Kerry said in Jakarta. “And that is unacceptable under any circumstances -- but is even more unacceptable because we know what we can do and need to do in order to deal with this challenge.”
Weiss at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based research group and think tank that promotes progressive policies, equated Kerry with Muir, who led the fight to preserve wilderness in the U.S., and Carson, who warned of the risks of pollution in “Silent Spring,” her 1962 book credited with starting the environmental movement.
“Hopefully this speech will be the yardstick Secretary Kerry uses to measure the harm from the Keystone pipeline to our climate,” Weiss said.
Zarlin, of Credo Action, said the speech will be meaningless, if Kerry gives “the green light to a foreign country to double down on the most destructive and dangerous fossil fuel in the world.”