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Anti-Keystone movement energized by EPA ruling

The ambitious carbon regulation proposal that the EPA unveiled on Monday has environmental activists hopeful that President Obama will reject Keystone XL.
A protester holds an anti-Keystone XL sign at the intersection of Wisconsin and M Streets in Washington DC's Georgetown neighborhood, April 25, 2014.
A protester holds an anti-Keystone XL sign at the intersection of Wisconsin and M Streets in Washington DC's Georgetown neighborhood, April 25, 2014.

The green movement undoubtedly scored a significant win when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its ambitious plan to regulate power plant emissions on Monday. Although the EPA proposal is somewhat milder than what the movement had hoped for, it is still a landmark proposal, and an indication that the president intends to substantially reduce domestic carbon emissions during his time in office.

As a result, Monday's announcement has bolstered progressive hopes that the Obama administration will nix the proposed Keystone XL pipeline extension, thereby ending one of the fiercest energy policy battles in recent memory with another environmentalist victory.

For nearly six years, the energy industry and environmental activists have been at war over the fate of the pipeline extension, which would transport up to 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day from Alberta, Canada to the United States. Proponents of the project say that it will bring thousands of jobs to the United States at the cost of minimal environmental impact; opponents claim the extension would commit the United States to a disastrous policy of open-ended fossil fuel dependency.

The White House has made positive noises about the project in the past, but has also repeatedly extended its deadline for approving or rejecting the proposal. Most recently, the Obama administration announced that it would not issue a ruling before the 2014 midterm elections.

When the president makes that decision, he'll be doing so in the face of both enormous industry pressure and his own growing commitment to climate change mitigation. Jason Kowalski, the U.S. policy director for leading anti-Keystone group, said the EPA ruling was an indication that President Obama would ultimately side with the green movement.

"I think the more the president talks about climate, the more he commits to making climate a part of his legacy, the easier it is and the more natural it would be to make a decision like rejecting Keystone," said Kowalski. "So I think it only helps us."

Nonetheless, activists still have a difficult climb ahead. Recent polling shows 61% of likely voters in favor of Keystone XL, and trending upwards. In Washington, Republicans uniformly support the pipeline, and Democrats from states with a strong energy industry presence have tended to follow suit. Alison Grimes, a high-profile Democratic Senate candidate in Kentucky, has been a vocal supporter of the pipeline extension. Meanwhile, two sitting Democratic senators have gone so far as to co-sponsor legislation which would approve the project and take the decision out of the executive branch's hands.

Yet unless that bill passes by veto-proof margins, President Obama will most likely still have the final say. Dan J. Weiss, director of climate strategy at the progressive Center for American Progress, said he did not think the White House would capitulate to public demand for the pipeline extension.

"I don't put much stock in polls and I don't put much stock in the idea that President Obama is going to base his decision on polls," said Weiss.

Either way, environmental groups are not taking Keystone's defeat as a foregone conclusion. In September, environmentalists will rally in New York for what Kowalski predicted would be "the largest climate action in the history of the world." Green groups including have every intention of keeping the pressure on.

"I think our job moving forward is to really make sure that the underlying political conditions around climate are in a place that encourages ambitious action from states," said Kowalski.

A spokesperson for TransCanada, the energy company behind the Keystone pipeline, declined to comment on how the EPA proposal would effect the pipeline extension's chances.

"While some media are looking for comments on what we think this could mean for Keystone XL, we are not in a position to speculate," wrote TransCanada spokesperson Shawn Howard in an email. "Questions regarding the process should be directed to the State Department."