Green alert flares after McCarthy's hometown comments on KXL, fracking

A Boston Globe reporter yesterday alarmed environmentalists with a preview of his interview with U.S. EPA chief Gina McCarthy that indicated she has an open attitude about the Keystone XL pipeline and hydraulic fracturing.

The McCarthy quotes tweeted by the Globe's David Abel at 1 p.m. -- she "didn't buy the argument that blocking the Keystone pipeline would prevent the extraction of tar sands oil," he wrote -- caused a conflagration big enough that EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson threw cold water on their KXL impact before the dinner hour.

"The quotes posted were taken out of context and do not reflect any change in the administration's position," Johnson said via email.

Abel's interview may not yield a published story beyond his 10 tweets yesterday, he said. But his report that McCarthy declared there was "nothing inherently dangerous in fracking" beyond the reach of "sound engineering practices" was enough to draw quick resistance from the green groups that count themselves an integral part of President Obama's base and have staked their political clout on resisting KXL's 700,000-plus daily barrels of emissions-heavy oil sands crude from Canada.

Daniel Kessler, spokesman for the rising anti-KXL climate activists at 350.org, called McCarthy's fracking remarks "inconsistent with commonly understood carbon accounting."


Pointing to warnings from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that continued, unabated expansion of natural gas production would put global greenhouse gas emissions on a path toward significant climate change, Kessler then addressed an Abel tweet that quoted McCarthy using the word "frustrating" to describe the slow pace of environmental work at the national level.

"[P]art of the reason for the lack of progress comes from a lack of movement that can be a powerful counterweight to the fossil fuel industry," Kessler added via email. "Enabling the industry to frack and giving them KXL would further retard progress, and make the movement feel as if they had an opponent at EPA and in the [White House], not an ally."

Some greens working to stop the 1,179-mile KXL, which Obama is not expected to rule on until next year, appeared ready to offer McCarthy the benefit of the doubt.

"It sounds like she must have been taken out of context or misunderstood, as surely the EPA administrator understands that oil development is not inevitable?" David Turnbull, campaign director at Oil Change International, said via email. "If not, there are plenty of First Nations, Nebraska farm owners and Texas ranchers who I'm sure would be happy to show her just how hard they are fighting to protect their communities and our climate from increased tar sands development."

Neither Abel nor Johnson responded to further questions about the Globe interview in time for publication, but the reporter tweeted a clarification of his own late yesterday. McCarthy "never told the Globe whether the administration plans to approve Keystone," Abel wrote, adding that his words "reflected only my impression of the conversation she had at the Globe."

The Jackson legacy

Abel's McCarthy quotes may yet be enough to keep greens on edge. As industry-backed group Oil Sands Fact Check observed in a memo to reporters yesterday, they are not her first to suggest that EPA now has a leader less inclined to raise her voice about KXL than Lisa Jackson, who left the Obama administration last year amid speculation that she had lost patience with the prospect of an imminent pipeline approval.

Asked by "PBS NewsHour" last month whether allowing KXL's construction would deflate the value of Obama's other environmental efforts, as 350.org and many other green groups allege, McCarthy demurred.

"No one project is going to take that away from us," the EPA chief said of the administration's work on fuel economy as well as reduction in industrial mercury, arsenic and carbon emissions.

McCarthy's Globe interview amounts to "yet another blow to Keystone XL opponents' linchpin argument," the oil sands group crowed yesterday.

Even the perception that McCarthy is less inclined to resist KXL than Jackson risks undercutting greens' position on the pipeline at a time when the capital is bracing for a final environmental review of the project as soon as this month. Under the complex bureaucratic process that governs the KXL "national interest determination," EPA has the power to formally object to the State Department analysis of the pipeline.

That objection would give the White House an official decisionmaking role under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in addition to the political role that climate activists have all but forced Obama to assume through a long-running one-man lobbying campaign. Even when Jackson was leading EPA, however, the agency declined to use its NEPA power against KXL (Greenwire, Oct. 27, 2011).

Jane Kleeb, the leader of Plains-region anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska, took her case directly to EPA. In a written invitation to McCarthy to visit rural areas where conservative farmers have helped fight KXL over concerns about the risk to local water supply and crops, Kleeb questioned the reasoning sketched out in Abel's tweets -- that the value of Canada's oil sands would ensure their extraction, with or without the controversial pipeline.

"Using that logic, we should never do anything about cigarettes, cancer, or even carbon pollution from coal plants, since China will pollute their air," Kleeb wrote.

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