Obama's Climate Doctrine: It's About 'Leverage'

President Barack Obama (L) and Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper take a walk on the second day of the G8 summit at the Lough Erne resort near Enniskillen in Northern Ireland on June 18, 2013. (National Journal)

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President Obama didn't offer a timeline for his decision on the Keystone XL pipeline after meeting in Mexico with Canada's prime minister Wednesday.

But the president did provide another window onto his thinking about U.S. climate policy and its diplomatic fallout, during his joint press conference with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Pena Nieto.

In sum: It's great that North America sits atop such a huge pool of fossil fuels, but if it looks like we'll burn them forever, we'll have little leverage with China, India, and other nations where carbon emissions are surging.

"One of the wonderful things about North America is we have this amazing bounty of traditional fossil fuels, and we also have extraordinary businesses that are able to extract them in very efficient ways. And that's something that we should welcome, because it helps to promote economic growth," Obama said after noting he wants to work with Harper on greenhouse-gas emissions policy.

Obama added: "But we only have one planet, and so I believe that ultimately we can both promote economic development and growth, recognizing that we're not going to immediately transition off of fossil fuels, but that we do have to point to the future and show leadership so that other countries who will be the main emitters fairly soon"“China, India, other emerging markets"“so that they can look at what we're doing and we have leverage over them in terms of them improving their practices as well."

The comments in Mexico on Wednesday night, offered during the press conference that followed a meeting between the three heads of state, came as the administration positions itself ahead of the next rounds of rocky international climate talks that are supposed to end with a global accord in Paris in 2015.

In remarks published by The New Yorker a few weeks ago, Obama similarly said that when it comes working with China and India (the world's largest and third-largest carbon emitters), "it's very hard for me to get in that conversation if we're making no effort."

Back to Keystone: Obama defended what has been a years-long federal review while acknowledging that Harper, who has been seeking approval of the pipeline for years, has chafed at the U.S. process.

"There is a process that has been gone through, and I know it's been extensive, and at times I'm sure Stephen feels, a little too laborious. But these are how we make these decisions about something that could potentially have a significant impact on America's national economy and our national interests," Obama said.

The State Department recently launched the latest phase: A 90-day process to get input from other federal agencies about whether the pipeline is in the "national interest." But there's no deadline for a final recommendation from Secretary of State John Kerry or a final White House call.

The 90-day process follow a late January State Department report that concluded Keystone is unlikely to cause a surge in greenhouse-gas emissions. But, leaving Obama wiggle room, the analysis also modeled alternative scenarios in which the effect would be more significant.

"So the State Department has gone through its review. There is now a comment period in which other agencies weigh in. That will be evaluated by Secretary of State Kerry, and we'll make a decision at that point," Obama said.

His remarks came hours after a new setback for pipeline advocates. A Nebraska judge on Wednesday tossed out the state law used to approve the pipeline route through the Cornhusker State.

The State Department had no comment on the judge's decision, which Nebraska's governor quickly vowed to appeal. The consulting firm ClearView Energy Partners on Thursday said the Nebraska ruling could delay the federal review.

"Yesterday's ruling could give the State Department and the White House a reason to extend the ongoing National Interest Determination process," the firm said in a short analysis.