Washington: The Obama administration is putting off its decision on the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, likely until after the November elections, by extending its review of the controversial project indefinitely.
The project, proposed by Canadian company TransCanada, has become a proxy for a larger battle between environmental activists and energy advocates over climate change and the future of American energy. It’s also become an issue of concern in Canada, which has long pushed for approval of the pipeline. The review process has lasted more than five years.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Friday called the US decision a political one.
“We are disappointed that politics continue to delay a decision on Keystone XL,” Jason MacDonald said in an email.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird spent several days in Washington recently pleading for a decision soon, arguing that it would be unfair to keep construction workers and the industry waiting as the building season approached.
The State Department has jurisdiction on the issue because the pipeline would cross an international border. Keystone XL would carry oil from western Canada’s tar sands to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.
In a statement, TransCanada CEO Russ Girling said, “We are extremely disappointed and frustrated with yet another delay.” He added, “We are also disappointed the United States will continue to rely on suspect and aggressive foreign leaders for the eight to nine million barrels of oil that is imported every day. A stable, secure supply of oil from Canada and from the US makes better sense, and I am sure a majority of Americans agree.”
In a rare display of bipartisanship, prominent Democrats from energy-dependent states joined Republicans in blasting the Obama administration for delaying the decision once again. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, accused Obama of kowtowing to “radical activists” from the environmental community. Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu called the decision “irresponsible, unnecessary and unacceptable.”
The State Department didn’t say how much longer it will give agencies to weigh in but cited a recent decision by a Nebraska judge that overturned a state law that allowed the pipeline’s path through the state, prompting uncertainty and an ongoing legal battle. Nebraska’s Supreme Court isn’t expected to rule for another several months, and there could be more legal maneuvering after that.
The delay potentially frees President Barack Obama to avoid making a final call on the pipeline until after the November election.
“The agency consultation process is not starting over. The process is ongoing, and the department and relevant agencies are actively continuing their work in assessing the permit application,” the State Department said in a statement.
Officials declined Friday to say when a final decision would take place but said the process should proceed “as expeditiously as possible.” The White House declined to comment on the State Department’s announcement.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, accused the administration of “a stunning act of political cowardice” by waiting until most Americans would be too busy preparing for Easter or observing Passover to notice the delay.
“This decision is irresponsible, unnecessary and unacceptable,” said Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, who faces a difficult re-election in oil-rich Louisiana. Landrieu said Obama was signalling that a small minority can tie up the process in the courts, sacrificing 42,000 jobs and billions in economic activity.
The 1,890-kilometre pipeline would travel through Montana and South Dakota to a hub in Nebraska, where it would connect with existing pipelines to carry more than 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day to refineries in Texas.
The southern leg of the Alberta-to-Texas pipeline is already completed.
In January, the State Department said that building the pipeline would not significantly boost carbon emissions because the oil was likely to find its way to market no matter what. Transporting the oil by rail or truck would cause greater environmental problems than the pipeline, the report said.
Obama and environmental groups dispute the notion that the pipeline would create many permanent jobs or have a substantial economic impact. The White House has insisted that Secretary of State John Kerry is in charge of the process, but Obama is widely expected to make the final decision.
Environmental groups fighting the pipeline praised the delay, arguing that it shows the State Department is taking the arguments against the pipeline seriously.
“This is definitely great news,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for the League of Conservation Voters. “We are very confident as they continue to examine the issues with the lack of legal route in Nebraska and the terrible climate impacts, at the end of the day the pipeline will be rejected.”