WASHINGTON - John Kerry offered scant indication Thursday about his position on TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline, saying simply that he hopes to make "appropriate judgments" about the fate of the project should he officially become secretary of state.
The Massachusetts senator, appearing at his confirmation hearings, didn't face many questions on either climate change or the Keystone pipeline during almost four hours before the Senate foreign relations committee, of which he's currently the chairman.
"There is a statutory process with regards to the review and that is currently ongoing," Kerry said. "It will not be long before that comes across my desk, and I will make the appropriate judgments about it."
The State Department is making the ultimate decision on Keystone because it crosses an international border. Kerry, meantime, is widely expected to win swift confirmation as secretary of state, replacing Hillary Clinton.
State is "responsible for the environmental review, and there are specific standards that have to be met with respect to that review," Kerry told the hearing.
"I am going to review those standards and make sure they are complete."
He added he hoped the Keystone XL review would be done by the end of March, but made no firm commitment. A State Department spokesman suggested earlier this week that there would be no decision until after March 31.
"It is happening in the appropriate due course of business. We will try and get it done as soon as we can," the senator said.
Kerry's longtime devotion to climate issues — he unsuccessfully tried to push greenhouse gas legislation through Congress three years ago — has American environmentalists hopeful that he might nix the controversial $7 billion project.
Keystone XL would transport bitumen extracted from Alberta's carbon-intensive oilsands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. The pipeline has become a flashpoint for U.S. environmentalists who view the oilsands as "dirty oil" and a symbol of climate change at large.
Keystone proponents, meantime, argue that Keystone XL will create jobs and help provide the U.S. with energy independence from often hostile OPEC regimes.
During his opening statement on Thursday, Kerry said that American foreign policy is "defined by leadership on life-threatening issues like climate change." The U.S. is currently taking part in a United Nations-led effort to come up with a new, worldwide emissions agreement.
He also punched back at a suggestion from Republican Sen. John Barrasso that tougher environmental regulations should not be a top U.S. priority during a period of austerity.
"The solution to climate change is energy policy," Kerry replied.
"You want to do business and do it well in America, we've got to get into the energy race .... I will be a passionate advocate on this, not based on ideology, but based on facts, based on science."
At least one congressional climate hawk seems to be preparing for the possibility that Keystone XL is a done deal.
Henry Waxman, the Democratic head of the House of Representatives' energy and commerce committee, said Thursday that the Obama administration's decision on Keystone would represent merely a "small" piece of the pie in efforts to combat climate change.
"This is only a small issue compared to the overall objective that the president and we want to achieve," Waxman told a news conference.
President Barack Obama and the White House will have to weigh issues other than just climate change as they make a decision on Keystone, he added.
"I know there are a lot of different factors, including our relationship with Canada, that's on his mind."
Keystone is back on the hot seat in the U.S. capital this week, in part because Obama spoke out Monday during his second inaugural address about the need to confront climate change.
The president's forceful repudiation of climate-change skeptics has prompted the U.S. environmental movement to urge Obama to back up his rhetoric by putting the brakes to Keystone XL.
Fifty-three senators, however — more than half in the upper chamber — sent the president a letter this week beseeching him to approve the project.
Kerry and his wife, meantime, have agreed to divest holdings in a Canadian oil company, as well as dozens of other investments, in an effort to avoid conflicts of interest should he become secretary of state.
Kerry has as much as US$750,000 invested in Suncor, a Calgary-based oil company whose CEO has urged the Obama administration to green-light the pipeline.
Federal ethics officials have determined the Suncor (TSX:SU) stock poses no conflict of interest threats. But Kerry has agreed to divest of as much as $31,000 in Cenovus Energy — another Calgary firm that has pushed for Keystone XL approval — within 90 days if he's confirmed secretary of state.
Kerry's office says many of his investments are in family trusts managed by an independent trustee, and that the senator is unaware of the contents. The senator is one of the wealthiest lawmakers on Capitol Hill with an estimated net worth of $193 million.