Obama says carbon pollution is "critical" part of Keystone decision

In a speech laying out a plan to reduce carbon emissions, President Obama on Tuesday said that carbon pollution will be "absolutely critical" in his administration's decision whether or not to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Before the pipeline can be built, the State Department must conclude that the project serves the national interest, Mr. Obama said at Georgetown University.

"Our national interest will be served only if this project doesn't significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution," he said. "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."

The $7 billion, 1,700-mile pipeline would carry oil extracted from tar sands in western Canada to refineries in the Texas Gulf Coast. Opponents of the pipeline within the president's party have emphatically urged him to reject the plan because of its environmental risks, while Republicans have ratcheted up calls for its approval.

A look at the State Department's Draft Environmental Impact Study would suggest the pipeline may not be approved by the president's standard. The report says the annual CO2e emissions from Keystone "is equivalent to CO2e emissions from approximately 626,000 passenger vehicles operating for one year or 398,000 homes using electricity for one year."

However, initial reaction from Capitol Hill suggested lawmakers are skeptical the president's remarks will stop the construction of the pipeline. "I am disappointed that there is no mention of stopping the tar sands pipeline because that's going to set us way back in terms of carbon pollution," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., told CBS News.

Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement, "The standard the president set today should lead to speedy approval of the Keystone pipeline."

He pointed to the State Department's study, which says the project "is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands, or on the amount of heavy crude oil refined in the Gulf Coast area." In other words, even if Keystone isn't approved, other projects would develop that oil, resulting in the same levels of carbon pollution.

Opponents of the pipeline point to remarks from energy insiders to refute that claim. For instance, Total E&P Canada Ltd. president Andre Goffart told the Globe and Mail in March, "This is why Keystone is so important for us - because we have this refinery capable of treating our crude and today we are missing that opportunity because of that logistical constraint."

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama said today that the nation's energy strategy "must be about more than just producing more oil. And by the way, it's certainly got to be about more than just building one pipeline."

The president described the three-part plan he's launching - without the help of Congress - to combat carbon pollution. The plan consists of executive actions aimed at cutting the nation's carbon emissions, leading global efforts to reduce carbon pollution and preparing the United States for the impacts of climate change.

"As a president, as a father, and as an American, I'm here to say, we need to act," he said. "I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that's beyond fixing."

Taking an aggressive tone, Mr. Obama said climate change "is a challenge that does not pause for partisan gridlock." He noted that the Clean Air Act passed in 1970 with unanimous support in the Senate and a vote of 375 to one in the House.

"I don't know who the one guy was. I haven't looked that up," he joked. "I mean, you can barely get that many votes to name a post office these days."

Warning of the high economic costs of climate change, as well as the health and safety risks, the president said he doesn't have "much patience" for climate change deniers.

"We don't have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society," he said. "Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it's not gonna protect you from the coming storm."