At State, Kerry could push climate change action

In the Senate. Democrat John Kerry has been a fierce advocate of combating climate change by reining in greenhouse gas emissions from refineries and power plants.

Now, environmentalists and energy analysts expect the five-term senator will take that same zeal to the State Department, where he is likely to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary.

“One of (the) most pressing diplomatic challenges we face is mobilizing the international community to reverse potentially devastating climate change,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. “Sen. Kerry understands that we need to tackle this global threat head on and has already worked for years to do so.”

President Barack Obama nominated Kerry to be secretary of State on Dec. 21. The post would make Kerry the United States’ chief foreign ambassador and the face of the nation’s foreign policy. It also would thrust him into big environmental policy debates over climate change as well as the controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposed to carry oil sands crude from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

The State Department is expected to soon issue a fresh environmental review of the pipeline after it was rerouted to avoid drinking water supplies in Nebraska. Obama rejected a permit for the border-crossing permit in January, setting up the latest round of scrutiny, which could end with a State Department verdict on whether the pipeline is in the “national interest” sometime during the first quarter of 2013.

It’s possible the State Department will wrap up its work on the Keystone XL permit application before Kerry makes it through confirmation hearings and all-but-assured Senate approval, which would prevent the new Secretary of State from being burdened with the political baggage from the decision.

Environmentalists oppose the $7 billion pipeline on multiple grounds, including fears that it would expand the marketplace for bitumen harvested in Alberta, Canada. Because the hydrocarbon is typically extracted using mining and energy-intensive in-situ techniques involving underground injections of steam, environmentalists say it produces more carbon emissions from initial extraction through combustion than alternatives.

Supporters dispute that calculus and insist that even without Keystone XL, the Canadian oil sands crude will be extracted and sold to far-flung Asian markets.

When it comes to climate change, Kerry has cultivated an expertise and a passion for combating it while in the Senate. Two years ago, Kerry spearheaded the push for a broad global warming bill that would limit greenhouse gas emissions, boost nuclear power and possibly expand access for domestic oil and gas drilling.

The bipartisan endeavor never advanced out of the Senate, but it brought together retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and was expected to form the framework for any climate change deal with the House.

Kerry’s climate change push showed his pragmatism on the issue. Instead of adopting a cap-and-trade plan that forces refineries, power plants and other polluters to buy emissions allowances to comply with tightening limits on carbon dioxide releases, Kerry tried crafting a hybrid model that included auctions of those allowances, with sale revenue distributed to the public to pay for resulting higher energy costs.

Recognizing the bill wouldn’t get through the Senate without Republican support, Kerry, Lieberman and Graham were mulling ways to tether the climate change plan to expanded drilling on federal lands and waters.

Noting Kerry’s climate change history on Capitol Hill, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., called him “the most knowledgeable, passionate person to break the international logjams on this existential threat.”

“I have absolute confidence that Secretary Kerry will be just as committed to action on climate change as Sen. Kerry,” Markey added.

Environmentalists are pinning high hopes on Kerry too.

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, hailed Kerry as a “true leader on climate change and other environmental issues (who) has spent his career advocating for policies that are good for our planet and our national security.”

Larry Schweiger, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, noted that “Kerry understands the urgent need for U.S. leadership and global cooperation to tackle climate change and speed the transformation to a clean energy economy.”

Global negotiations over a broad climate change agreement have all but stalled, after a conference this month in Doha, Qatar ended without any new agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. New international negotiations aim to initiate a new pact in three years, when Kerry, presumably, would still be at the State Department.

Separately, the State Department also has forged bilateral partnerships to cooperate on clean energy and climate change with India, China, Indonesia and other countries.