By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON, March 3 (Reuters) - As the years-long fight over the Keystone XL pipeline grinds toward resolution, green groups are broadening their focus to include the possibility that the Obama administration will loosen curbs on how much oil and gas the United States exports.
One such group, Oil Change International, plans to declare on Monday that lifting the decades-old ban on U.S. crude oil exports would undercut promises made by President Barack Obama last summer to protect the climate.
The focus on exports marks a bridge to the future from the Keystone XL fight, which helped re-energize environmental activists after legislation to take action on climate change died in the U.S. Senate in 2010.
"Keystone XL is the issue that has brought more activists into the street than any environmental question in a generation," Bill McKibben, founder of green group 350.org, wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times in February.
Transcanada Corp's proposed Keystone XL pipeline would transport more than 800,000 barrels per day of crude from Canada's oil sands region to the U.S. Gulf Coast. A final decision on the pipeline could be made within months.
Long focused on the level of pollution created by digging up tar sands in Alberta and then moving the gritty bitumen across several U.S. states, opponents to Keystone are recasting the debate into one on exports.
A television ad rolled out by San Francisco-based NextGen Climate Action before Obama's State of the Union address in January raised fears that oil from Canada would snake through the United States, only to be exported to countries like China.
NextGen, a political action committee founded by billionaire hedge fund investor and climate activist Tom Steyer, aimed to counteract claims by TransCanada that the oil transported via Keystone would remain in the North America.
Christopher Lehane, Steyer's political adviser, told Reuters that the group's internal polling has found that voters respond strongly to suggestions that oil moved on Keystone won't necessarily remain in the United States.
"They quickly realize that there is no value proposition that would justify the United States approving a pipeline that will increase pollution, threaten thousands of miles throughout the Midwest, all for the benefit of a foreign oil company," Lehane said.
QUESTIONING THE BENEFIT OF 'ALL OF THE ABOVE'
Some environmental groups argue that the administration's embrace of an "all-of-the-above" energy policy, with its backing of fossil fuels as well as alternatives such as solar and wind, contradicts the president's own climate plan announced last June and gives industry more motivation to push for an easing of existing curbs on energy exports.
Oil Change International, an advocacy group that targets the fossil fuel industry, has taken note of a drive started this year to lift the existing ban on most exports of U.S. crude oil.
In early January, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the Senate Energy Committee, professed her support for easing restrictions as the United States reaches record levels of oil production and starts to look for new outlets for its crude.
Murkowski's call has been echoed by groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute, although many lawmakers are still cautious on the topic.
"The industry push for exports is a symptom of the President's disastrous 'all-of-the-above' energy plan, that puts the interests of Big Oil over the interests of the American people," said David Turnbull, campaigns director of Oil Change International.
"Removing the crude export ban would be a disaster for the climate, just as the building the Keystone XL pipeline and any energy policy choice that incentivizes the production of more fossil fuels," Turnbull added.
Obama said in June that he would make his decision on whether to approve Keystone based on whether it will have a significant impact on the climate.
But Oil Change plans to say on Monday that lifting the U.S. crude oil export ban, and likely raising oil prices in the process, would have such an impact, and thus fail Obama's own litmus test, according to a preview given to Reuters.
"Allowing U.S. crude oil exports will result in increased profits that will in turn result in increased oil production," the report said.
A $10 per barrel increase in U.S. crude oil prices would lead to an additional 9.9 billion barrels of production between 2015 and 2050, which would release more than 4.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the lifetime emissions of 42 coal plants, it found.
LNG EXPORTS ALSO DRAW PROTESTS
Approvals of several liquid natural gas (LNG) export proposals over the past year by the U.S. Department of Energy have gone largely unchallenged, but are also starting to gain notice among green groups, which are drawing parallels to the Keystone fight.
In late February a few hundred protesters marched in Baltimore carrying a long white plastic pipeline and headed to the offices of Maryland's utility regulator. They were protesting Dominion Resources' proposed Cove Point natural gas export facility on Chesapeake Bay.
Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said the movement to reject the project is resonating with activists concerned about the environmental impact of increased natural gas production and exporting fossil fuels.
"Like Keystone, the fight against the proposed Cove Point fracked gas export facility is becoming, overnight, an incredibly mobilizing and galvanizing force," he said.