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Secretary of State designate Kerry sidesteps Keystone pipeline questions at nomination hearing

U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) is seen in a September 2012 file photograph.

Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

Senator John Kerry, an ardent environmentalist who has warned that man-made climate change poses a grave threat to national security, gave no hint Thursday as to whether he will back or block the massive and long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline that would  funnel Canada's carbon-laden crude oil to U.S. refineries.

President Barack Obama hand-picked Mr. Kerry as his next Secretary of State, replacing Hillary Clinton, a move applauded by environmentalists who extol the Massachusetts senator's green credentials and consider him a leading advocate of capping carbon emissions.

Asked Thursday, by Californian Democrat Senator Barbara Boxer at his confirmation hearing whether he would judge  Keystone XL on its climate change impact, Mr. Kerry was careful not to tip his hand.

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"There's a statutory process that's currently ongoing, it's under way and it will not be long" before it's complete," he said referring to the State Department's environmental assessment. "And at that time I will make an appropriate judgement.'

Both environmentalists who bitterly oppose Keystone and Big Oil – which along with the Canadian Conservative government ardently backs it – were watching closely Thursday to see if  Mr. Kerry's confirmation hearings shed some light on his views about Keystone XL.

The long-serving, multimillionaire Massachusetts senator is expected to have an easy ride in confirmation hearings. Senators rarely subject their colleagues to tough questioning when they are tapped for cabinet posts.

Still, amidst the jibes and good wishes, Mr. Kerry's views on climate change in general and Keystone XL in particular should provide a hint as to whether the President's lofty rhetoric on cutting carbon will translate into political reality. Republican Senator John McCain, who, like Mr. Kerry, tried and failed in a bid for the presidency, joked that senators would use so-called enhanced interrogation techniques to make sure Mr. Kerry, was being forthcoming. "We will bring back, for the only time, water-boarding to get the truth out."

Still, some expect Mr. Kerry to duck if and when he is quizzed about Keystone XL. In delaying a final decision until after the November election, the President sent the proposal back to the State Department for a revised assessment and Mr. Kerry may opt to await that outcome, expected in late March or April, rather than telegraph his views.

Nevertheless, Keystone XL opponents were delighted by the Kerry nomination. Their hopes that Mr. Obama's second term would refocus on capping carbon emissions were raised by the President's inaugural address Monday.

"Approving Keystone XL would make a mockery of the commitment he made at the inauguration to take action on climate change," said May Boeve, head of the environmental group 350.org.

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Mr. Kerry, who savaged the George W. Bush administration for its dismissive rejection of science linking made-made emissions of carbon with the rapid recent rise in global temperatures and consequent climate change, has a long and consistent track record of advocating bold measures to cut carbon.

"The crisis is growing," he says on his Senate website. "Carbon pollution threatens to damage our children's health and radically and irreversibly alter our climate. It threatens to bring more famine and drought, worse pandemics, more natural disasters, and human displacement on a staggering scale." Mr. Kerry has also suggested climate change poses a threat to security equal to or greater than a nuclear-armed Iran or violent radical Islamic jihad.

But the final Keystone decision "will be made in the White House, not by the Secretary of State," said Daniel Kessler of 350.org. Hence the delight among Keystone XL opponents after the President's stirring vow to take action on climate change. "A failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," said Mr. Obama of the need to stop global warming.

Mr. Kerry's environmental advocacy stretches back decades and he was co-sponsor of the ill-fated Senate effort to introduce a cap-and-trade effort to curb carbon emissions. Along with his wife, Teresa Heinz, heiress to the food fortune, he wrote a book in 2007 called: This Moment on Earth: Today's New Environmentalists and Their Vision for the Future.

While the approval this week by Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman of a new pipeline routing that avoids a sensitive underground aquifer, Keystone XL is now banking on the President and Mr. Kerry to block the project.

"You cannot say the words the President did in his inaugural address and then turn around and approve the pipeline," said Jane Kleeb, who heads Bold Nebraska, a group opposed to Keystone. "The fight continues, even though Governor Heineman sided with a foreign corporation."

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"If we are going to get serious about climate change, opening the spigot to a pipeline that will export up to 830,000 barrels of the dirtiest oil on the planet to foreign markets stands as a bad idea," the National Resources Defense Council said after the Nebraska decision.

It, too, is counting on Mr. Obama's rekindled interest in cutting carbon. "The President signaled that his administration would refocus on climate during his inaugural speech," the NRDC said in a statement. "He can do that by saying no to this ill-advised tar sands pipeline."

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More

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