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Examing The Motivations Behind Obama's Keystone XL Decision

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Keystone XL pipeline project has been in front of Barack Obama for most of his administration. Yesterday, President Obama said it won't be built.

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BARACK OBAMA: America's now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change. And frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.

SIMON: The announcement has implications for U.S. politics and also global negotiations. NPR's Scott Detrow joins us in our studio. Scott, thanks very much for being with us.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: How important is this decision to the U.S. energy resources?

DETROW: Well, I would say it's very important and also not really important at all. The Keystone XL pipeline has become the political flashpoint when it comes to environmental and climate policy and energy policy here in the United States. Supporters have said it would create tens of thousands of jobs. Opponents of the pipeline say that the oil coming through it, going to the market, would just put the world over the top in terms of carbon dioxide that's being emitted from energy extraction. And that overcharged debate is an issue that President Obama addressed when he made this announcement.

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OBAMA: For years, the Keystone pipeline has occupied what I, frankly, consider an overinflated role in our political discourse. It became a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter.

DETROW: But because of that - because of the role that Keystone plays in the conversation, President Obama can use this decision to send a very clear message to the rest of the world - that climate implications matter a great deal when he and the United States are making decisions about energy policy.

SIMON: But realistically, isn't in the oil already on its way?

DETROW: Yeah, that's accurate. This oil is being extracted in Alberta. It's going to the global market. It's being consumed anyway. And that was an argument in favor of it. Folks were saying that this is coming by barge. It's coming by train. Why not have it come in a pipeline that you could argue is safer and less vulnerable to spills and crashes and things like that?

SIMON: And why do you think the decision comes now? We'll note, of course, the president doesn't have to run for re-election anymore.

DETROW: That's right. He doesn't. I think he's - you can make the argument that he's timing this in a very symbolic way. This comes on the eve of a very important climate summit that's going to happen in Paris. It begins later this month. And that's the United Nations' latest attempt to get a global game plan in place to lower carbon dioxide to address climate change.

There have been several of these summits before, and they haven't really gone too well. And historically, the United States has kind of been the bad guy here. Historically, more emissions come from the United States than any other country. And you could view this as a way of - for President Obama to make a statement to other world leaders that this time around, the United States is going to be very serious about coming out of these negotiations with a solution and a real game plan.

SIMON: What are the significant policy issues right now?

DETROW: Well, if the Keystone XL pipeline is kind of overblown and also not critically important to the big picture energy landscape in the United States, there's another policy that started taking place that's kind of the opposite. It's very important, and it's probably going to shift the way that energy is produced in the U.S., but it doesn't get as much attention. And that's something called the Clean Power Plan. That is an EPA regulation that is going to require states to shift away from coal and to lower carbon sources like solar, wind power, but also a lot more natural gas in the way that big-scale utilities produce their energy. And that policy, which is in the very long process of going into a codified EPA regulation, is kind of the backbone of the plan that the United States is going to take to Paris later this month.

SIMON: NPR's Scott Detrow, thanks so much.

DETROW: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.