By Patrick Rucker and Mark Felsenthal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - John Podesta's return to the White House could dim prospects for the Keystone XL pipeline's approval, environmentalists said Wednesday, as the Democratic Party elder and Keystone critic crafts policies to curb climate change.
Podesta, who was chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, will have the title "counselor to the president" and chiefly advise President Barack Obama on energy and climate change issues, the White House said this week.
In the past, Podesta has aligned himself with environmentalist foes of TransCanada Corp's 1,200-mile (1,900-km) pipeline that would carry 830,000 barrels a day of oil sands crude from western Canada to the Gulf Coast.
The $5.4 billion link between Alberta oil fields and Texas refiners is expected to spur production of a fuel that environmentalists say worsens climate change.
On Wednesday, the White House said Podesta would not get involved in the question of whether to allow Keystone XL because of his well-known opposition to the project.
"He felt it was most appropriate to basically send a signal early on that this is not something that will be part of his portfolio," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
Some environmentalists, however, said Podesta's concern about climate change would likely infuse discussions about Keystone XL.
"President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are already committed to fighting climate change. Podesta's return to the White House puts another advocate at the table," said Tiernan Sittenfeld, the chief lobbyist for the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group.
The State Department is finishing a report on the potential climate impacts of the Keystone pipeline, but Obama has said that he will be the one to bless or reject the project.
A final decision is expected sometime next year.
Podesta, who was a leader of Obama's transition team in 2008, is chair of the Center for American Progress (CAP), a left-leaning think tank that wants to shift the economy away from its dependence on fossil fuels.
Addressing Canadian environmentalists in 2010, Podesta criticized the "polluting, destructive, expensive and energy-intensive" nature of oil sands development.
Last year, he penned an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal with Tom Steyer, a billionaire activist and Keystone foe, saying cleaner-burning domestic energy sources should take priority over oil sands.
Conservation issues always got a hearing when Podesta led the Clinton White House, former Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol Browner recently said at a CAP anniversary event.
Podesta sits on the board of the League of Conservation Voters and the lobbying arm of the National Resources Defense Council. Environmentalists say he has been a sounding board and mentor for conservationists, even summoning activists for an hours-long weekend strategy session earlier this year on the politics of climate change.
But while environmental groups applauded Podesta's return to the White House, they cautioned that the move does not guarantee Keystone XL will be rejected.
"You bring someone like John Podesta to the White House because you value his judgment and experience, not because you want to send a signal on some particular issue," said David Goldston, head of government affairs for NRDC.
"But he believes that climate change is an urgent problem and that perspective is something that will shape decisions he will make."
(Reporting by Patrick Rucker, Roberta Rampton and Mark Felsenthal, editing by Ros Krasny and Douglas Royalty)