WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Friday said it was giving eight federal agencies more time to weigh in on the Keystone XL pipeline, a move almost certain to delay a final decision on the controversial project until after the Nov. 4 midterm elections.
That timeline spares President Barack Obama from making a politically difficult decision that would either anger environmentalists or jeopardize some Senate Democrats seeking reelection in red states.
But Friday’s move alienated stakeholders on all sides of the issue, including oil industry allies who accused the White House of playing politics and environmentalists who want Obama to swiftly reject the project they say would exacerbate climate change.
Obama administration officials insisted that prudence — not politics — were at play.
In scrapping a mid-May deadline for the agencies’ comments, the State Department cited “the uncertainty” created by a Nebraska court ruling that ultimately could prompt changes to the pipeline’s existing path. A final ruling by the state’s Supreme Court could be almost a year away.
That route is central to the agencies’ feedback and an environmental study of the project completed earlier this year, stressed a State Department official speaking to reporters on background.
“If there are changes to the route, it could have implications for the environmental, socioeconomic, cultural and other impacts that agencies are seeking to evaluate,” the official said. “We are prudently recognizing that the facts that agencies need to assess and analyze could change, and rather than preemptively asking agencies to give us all those comments now, we’re trying to get a better understanding of what that route might be.”
The State Department said it also would use the extra time to continue reviewing about 2.5 million comments filed by the public earlier this year.
The $5.4 billion pipeline would link Canada’s oil sands to the crude hub in Cushing, Okla., which provides easy access to Gulf Coast refineries. The environmental consequences of developing the heavy crude have been fiercely debated.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called the delay “shameful.”
“With tens of thousands of American jobs on the line and our allies in Eastern Europe looking for energy leadership from America, it’s clear there is little this administration isn’t willing to sacrifice for politics,” Boehner said in a statement.
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And Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, in a tough reelection contest in Louisiana, said the decision “amounts to nothing short of an indefinite delay of the Keystone pipeline” that is “irresponsible, unnecessary and unacceptable.”
“By making it clear that they will not move the process forward until there is a resolution in a lawsuit in Nebraska, the administration is sending a signal that the small minority who oppose the pipeline can tie up the process in court forever,” Landrieu added.
Calls for action
Although the State Department’s decision is a victory for some Nebraska landowners who have battled TransCanada’s plans for installing the pipeline in the state, it rattled some environmentalists pressing the Obama administration to make a swift and decisive ruling against Keystone XL.
Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, and a major leader in the movement against Keystone XL, dryly noted the politics at stake and the timing of the announcement, falling late on the Friday before Easter.
“It’s as if our leaders simply don’t understand that climate change is happening in real time — that it would require strong, fast action to do anything about it,” McKibben said. “While we’re at it, the State Department should also request that physics delay heat-trapping operations for a while, and that the El Nino scheduled for later this spring be pushed back to after the midterms.”
The administration’s move may accelerate efforts in Congress to push legislation forcing the administration to make a final decision on Keystone XL. A similar tactic backfired in 2012, when the Obama administration ultimately ruled against the project and forced TransCanada to reapply with a new pipeline route.
The company first applied for a permit to build the border-crossing pipeline five years ago.
TransCanada Corp. CEO Russ Girling called the delay “inexplicable.”
“Our view remains that the current 90-day national interest determination process that is now underway should not be impacted by the Nebraska lower court ruling since the approved reroute remains valid during appeal,” Girling said in a statement.
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