Keystone Backers Alarmed by John Podesta’s Move to White House

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 24: Center for American Progress co-founder John Podesta moderates a panel discussion during a conference commemorating the 10th anniversary of the center at the Astor Ballroom of the St. Regis Hotel October 24, 2013 in Washington, DC. Former Clinton Administration Chief of Staff Podesta co-founded the liberal public policy research and advocacy organization as a think tank that rivals conservative policy groups, such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Journal
Ben Geman and Amy Harder
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Ben Geman Amy Harder
Dec. 10, 2013, 10:12 a.m.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., an outspoken advocate of the Keystone XL pipeline, isn’t thrilled to hear that prominent Democratic strategist John Podesta has formally joined President Obama’s inner circle at the White House.

Podesta’s think tank, the Center for American Progress, has been battling the proposed pipeline, and Podesta himself has been critical of the project for years. 

“It creates a concern,” Hoeven told National Journal in the Capitol.

“The White House has delayed this for now more than five years,” Hoeven said. “It looks to me if they can find a way to turn it down, that is what they are going to do, which is why I am going to continue to do everything I can to put pressure on them to get them to approve it.”

On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., opposes Keystone and hailed Podesta’s decision to join the White House. But she downplayed any link between Podesta’s presence and Obama’s eventual decision on the pipeline.

“When it comes to policy, the president sets the policy. The people he has around him carry it out and work with us to make sure that we carry it out. Really it is not about what John Podesta thinks about an issue, it’s more: how much John Podesta is going to help this president create his legacy for a second term,” said Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

“He has experience, he knows how this place works, he has broad knowledge on so many subjects,” Boxer told reporters in the Capitol.

Dan Weiss, senior fellow at CAP, warned on Twitter not to read too much into Podesta’s opposition to the project.  “Podesta opposes Keystone but he will be an honest broker,” Weiss said. 

The New York Times on Monday night first reported that Podesta, who was President Clinton’s chief of staff, will work on the rollout of Obama’s troubled health care law and other topics, including climate change.

Three years ago in a speech to a conference in Canada, Podesta spoke at length about why he’s critical of the Keystone XL pipeline and development of oil sands more generally. The pipeline would carry oil from Canada’s tar sands to U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast.

He said in order for countries to reduce their carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, the goal shouldn’t be to just reduce the carbon footprint of oil sands production — which is energy-intensive and produces more greenhouse gases than traditional oil production — it should be to get off oil altogether.

“Setting a goal of lowering oil sands emissions to come into line with conventional oil production is the wrong goal,” Podesta said. “Oil sands can’t simply be as good as conventional oil. We need to reduce fossil fuel use and accelerate the transition to cleaner technologies, in the transportation sector and elsewhere.”

His comments on climate change as they relate to Keystone are particularly important since Obama in June said he would only approve the pipeline if it didn’t significantly exacerbate global warming.

“We either rapidly green the world’s engine of economic growth, or we suffer the consequences that are very difficult to even fully comprehend, in addition to those we already tolerate,” Podesta said. “Unconventional sources of fossil fuels cannot be our energy future,” Podesta said.

Environmental groups cheered Podesta’s return to the White House.

“John sees the intrinsic value of our public lands and forests, knows the danger of our reliance on dirty fuels like tar sands, and recognizes climate disruption as one of the most pressing challenges of our time — and he’s taken action to find solutions,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune.

In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in January 2012, Podesta and Tom Steyer, a billionaire environmentalist, sounded bullish on another kind of unconventional fossil fuel: natural gas, which faces criticism from many environmental groups including the Sierra Club. The nation’s largest environmental group wants the U.S. to start weaning itself off natural gas today.

“After a four-decade decline in oil production, the U.S. is now producing more than half of our oil domestically,” Podesta and Steyer wrote in The Journal. “This can free us from our addiction to foreign-sourced barrels, particularly if we utilize our dramatically larger and cheaper natural-gas reserves.”

“There are critical environmental questions associated with developing these resources, particularly concerning methane leakage and water pollution,” the two wrote. “Yet as long as we ensure high regulatory standards and stay away from the riskiest and most polluting of these activities, we can safely assemble a collection of lower-carbon, affordable, and abundant domestic-energy assets that will dramatically improve our economy and our environment.”

Steyer and Podesta were critical of becoming more dependent on foreign oil, a trend the Keystone XL pipeline may further incent. “Our economy can go from being weighed down by oil imports to soaring ahead, powered increasingly by domestically produced clean energy, and energy services and technology,” they wrote.

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