A long-awaited report from the U.S. State Department has dealt a potential major blow to efforts to stop the Keystone XL oil pipeline. An impact assessment released Friday says the pipeline’s northern leg would not have a major impact on climate change. In a speech last year, President Obama said his approval of the project will be contingent upon assuring it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” The proposed pipeline would transport 830,000 barrels of crude every day from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast, which opponents say will have a devastating impact on the planet. The White House says it has yet to make a decision and will await additional feedback from federal agencies. In Washington, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said the pipeline review will now be open to comments from the public.
Marie Harf: “There is no deadline for Secretary Kerry to make a decision. There’s also a 30-day public comment period after the SEIS is released to gather comments from the public. I’d stress that this is only one factor in a determination that will weigh many other factors, as well. And for Secretary Kerry, climate and environmental priorities will of course be part of his decision making, as will a range of other issues.”
In a statement, a coalition of environmental groups said the report should prompt a wave of protests to stop the pipeline, saying: “This is an all-hands-on-deck moment to send the message to President Obama that Keystone XL fails his climate test and he must reject it.” A new round of anti-pipeline vigils will begin today.
President Obama met with top executives on Friday to promote hiring of the long-term unemployed. The White House says the nation’s unemployment rate has been worsened by discrimination against those who have been without a job for over six months. Obama said he would issue an executive order to enhance protections for those who apply to work for the federal government.
President Obama: “We’ve engaged employers of all sizes, all around the country, including many who are here today, to commit to a set of inclusive hiring policies for making sure recruiting and screening practices don’t disadvantage folks who have been out of work, to establishing an open-door policy that actively encourages all qualified applicants. And, of course, it’s only right that the federal government lead by example. So, today I am directing every federal agency to make sure we are evaluating candidates on the level, without regard to their employment history, because every job applicant deserves a fair shot.”
The first Syrian peace talks ended Friday with little progress between the Assad regime and the opposition. U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said the two sides will reconvene after a one-week break if the Syrian government agrees to attend.
Lakhdar Brahimi: “I suggested we resume on the basis of an agreed agenda that we are going to prepare and send to them, that we meet on the 10th of February. The delegation of the opposition agreed to this date; that of the government said they needed to consult with Damascus first. Progress is very slow indeed, but the sides have engaged in an acceptable manner.”
Activists in Syria say more than 150 people have died in a weekend of attacks by government forces on the northern city of Aleppo. Syrian government helicopters have been hitting Aleppo for weeks with highly destructive barrel bombs –- oil drums filled with explosives and sometimes with nails or scrap metal. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says most of the victims have been civilians.
A former rebel commander in El Salvador has finished first in the country’s presidential election, setting up a run-off vote next month. Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the FMLN took 48.9 percent of the vote, just shy of the 50 percent needed to avoid a second round. He will square off against right-wing candidate Norman Quijano, who placed second with just under 39 percent. Before Sunday’s vote, Sánchez Cerén attended mass at the chapel where Archbishop Óscar Romero was assassinated by U.S.-backed death squads in 1980.
An Al Jazeera camera operator jailed in Egypt has been acquitted of all charges after more than six months behind bars. Mohamed Badr is one of a number of journalists to have been imprisoned since the military overthrew former President Mohamed Morsi in July. Badr’s attorney says he expects him to be released. Around 20 Al Jazeera journalists still face trial on charges including aiding a terrorist group. In a statement Friday, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights voiced alarm over what it called an “increasingly severe clampdown and physical attacks” on Egyptian journalists.
A former New Jersey official is claiming Gov. Chris Christie knew about the closures of traffic lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge when they occurred. The official, David Wildstein, helped coordinate the closures with a top Christie aide when he worked at the Port Authority last year. Christie has denied having any knowledge, saying he only found out when the scandal broke open last month. But in a new statement, Wildstein says “evidence exists” Christie was aware at the time, contrary to his public statements. Wildstein is seeking legal immunity as well as Port Authority backing for his attorneys’ fees in the probes surrounding the case. In a statement, the Christie administration denied Wildstein’s claims, saying he is only “looking for the Port Authority to pay his legal bills.” The Christie administration faces a deadline of today to comply with a subpoena for handing over documents to a state legislative investigation.
California is facing a major drought that is threatening water supplies across the state. At least 17 rural communities, home to around 40,000 people, are in danger of running out of water within 60 to 120 days. California saw less rainfall last year than in any other since becoming a state in 1850.
An undocumented immigrant who won the right to practice law has been sworn in to the California state bar. California’s Supreme Court ruled Sergio Garcia can practice law last month after a four-year court battle. Garcia was brought to the United States at the age of 17 months. After his swearing-in, Garcia said he hopes his case will open doors in other states.
Sergio Garcia: “I’m super excited that my case inspires across the nation. I think independently of whether you were blessed with being born in this country or not.”
Garcia still cannot be legally hired by an employer, but he says he plans to open his own law firm.
Drug reform advocates are calling on President Obama to use his executive authority to reclassify marijuana in line with his own recently stated views. In an interview with The New Yorker magazine last month, Obama said he does not think marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol and called for treating it as a problem of public health. On Friday, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Obama if that would lead to a shift in policy.
Jake Tapper: “You said that you thought smoking pot was a bad habit, but you didn’t think it was any worse for a person than drinking. Now, that contradicts the official Obama administration policy, both on the website of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and also the fact that marijuana is considered a Schedule I narcotic, along with heroin and ecstasy. Now, do you think you were maybe talking just a little too casually about it with [David] Remnick in The New Yorker, or are you considering not making marijuana a Schedule I narcotic?”
President Obama: “Well, first of all, what is and isn’t a Schedule I narcotic is a job for Congress.”
Jake Tapper: “I think it’s the DEA that decides that.”
President Obama: “It’s not something by ourselves that we start changing. No, there are laws undergirding those determinations.”
Despite Obama’s claim that marijuana’s status is up to Congress, both the Drug Enforcement Administration and the attorney general have the authority to reclassify. In a statement, the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access said: “President Obama told the nation during his State of the Union address that he would take executive action where he could on behalf of helping the American people. The president has the authority to reclassify marijuana and could exercise that authority at any time.”
The actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has died at the age of 46. He reportedly died of a heroin overdose. Hoffman had previously struggled with addiction before going sober for over two decades and then having a relapse that sent him into rehab last year. He was one of the most celebrated actors of his generation on stage and screen, winning a Best Actor Academy Award in 2006 for the film “Capote.”