US President Barack Obama’s administration further delayed its final decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project on Friday last week, with no conclusion seeming likely until after the US midterm elections in November.
Obama has said he will have the final say on whether to allow the pipeline connecting Canada’s oil sands region to Texas refiners, and several government agencies had been given until next month to weigh in. This had raised expectations of a final decision by mid-year.
However, the US Department of State said on Friday that it was extending that agency comment period, citing a need to wait until the Nebraska Supreme Court settles a dispute over what path the US$5.4 billion TransCanada Corp project should take.
“That pipeline route is central to the environmental analysis for the project and if there are changes to the route it could have implications,” a senior State Department official told reporters.
The legal process is likely to continue beyond November and might stretch into next year, meaning more delays for the politically charged issue that has been on the drawing board for more than five years.
By linking Canadian fields to refiners in the Gulf Coast, the 1,900km pipeline could help to lift an energy patch where heavy oil is abundant, but that is reached only by burning vast amounts of fossil fuels.
The oil industry contends that projects like Keystone can reduce the US’ reliance on Middle East oil, while partnering with one of the country’s closest political allies, Canada.
Delaying the proposed pipelin means “the United States will continue to rely on suspect and aggressive foreign leaders for the 8 [million] to 9 million barrels of oil that is imported every day,” TransCanada Corp chief executive Russ Girling said.
However, Keystone opponents — among them environmentalists who make up a part of Obama’s political base — say consuming carbon fuel to wrench oil sands crude from the ground will worsen climate change and the pipeline meant to carry up to 830,000 barrels a day will only spur more production.
They expect Obama to reject the project and so fulfill a commitment to battling climate change.
Stakes in the dispute have increased as Obama leads his party into the midterm elections.
Republicans, seeking to bolster their hold over the US House of Representatives and take control of Congress by winning a majority in the Senate, have portrayed the president as depriving US citizens of thousands of jobs by delaying the decision.
“Clearly he wants to get this past the midterms,” North Dakota Republican Senator John Hoeven said of the fresh delays.
“I’m not convinced that’s a good strategy. Because people are going to see it for the political decision that it is,” he added.
Environmentalists were heartened by Friday’s move, which they said left more time to mobilize public opposition.
“Millions of Americans have taken a stand against Keystone, and my hope is that’s making the Obama administration think twice,” said Bill Nape, who works with the Center for Biological Diversity, which helped organize a share of the 2.5 million comment letters received by the State Department.
However, several legislators said they would waste no time pushing for a Keystone approval through Congress.
“I plan to use my power as chair of the Senate Energy Committee to take decisive action to get this pipeline permit approved,” Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu said.