The Obama administration will delay action on a controversial cross-country oil pipeline in order to assess a shift in its route, officials announced Thursday, effectively putting off a politically vexing decision until after next year’s election.
The move is the latest twist in a more-than-three-year review process that has evolved from a fairly routine decision within the federal bureaucracy to a very public debate over national energy policy. It pitted environmental activists and an array of citizens along the pipeline’s proposed route against business groups, oil companies and unions whose members would be employed as part of the $7 billion project.
Officials at the State Department, which oversees the permitting process, had once promised a decision on the proposal by Alberta-based TransCanada by year’s end. But they said Thursday that they had to extend their review of the 1,700-mile pipeline to address Nebraskans’ objections to building across the state’s sensitive Sandhills region. That area provides habitat for imperiled wildlife and covers the Ogallala Aquifer, a critical source of drinking and irrigation water for state residents.
Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, told reporters that choosing a new route for the Nebraska portion of the pipeline will require a new environmental assessment, which will probably take at least 15 months.
“We’re being responsive to what we’ve heard from the public,” Jones said.
Jones said she and other State Department officials had consulted with the White House in recent days as they began to explore the possibility of a supplemental environmental assessment.
But she emphasized that they were spurred by concern that Nebraskans lacked a regulatory or legal framework to help influence the pipeline’s route. The Nebraska legislature is in a special session to consider its own options for directing the pipeline.
“This is not a political decision,” she said, adding that when it came to White House involvement, “there was no effort to influence our decision.”
Once the State Department broached the idea of a delay, Obama’s political and campaign team began floating the idea to environmental leaders and influential donors who had warned that approval of the project could dampen enthusiasm for the president’s reelection. A number confirmed discussions of the proposal over the past several days.
“Because this permit decision could affect the health and safety of the American people as well as the environment, and because a number of concerns have been raised through a public process,” President Obama said in a statement Thursday, “we should take the time to ensure that all questions are properly addressed and all the potential impacts are properly understood.”
Senior Canadian officials and TransCanada chief executive Russ Girling said Thursday that they remain optimistic the pipeline would win final approval.
“We remain confident Keystone XL will ultimately be approved,” Girling said in a statement, adding: “This project is too important to the U.S. economy, the Canadian economy and the national interest of the United States for it not to proceed.”
The company said in a statement that among the 14 routes already reviewed by State Department officials was one that “would have avoided the entire Sandhills region and Ogallala Aquifer and six alternatives that would have reduced pipeline mileage crossing the Sandhills or the aquifer.”
National Wildlife Federation President Larry Schweiger said the pipeline had crystallized the issue of climate change and corporate influence over national policy in a way few other issues had in recent years.
“Many Americans are today tired of corporations calling the shots in Washington. This is a shot called not by the corporations, but by the voices of the people who were outside the fence of the White House on Sunday,” he said. “This is a sleeping giant, and they have awakened the giant of the environmental movement.”
Proponents of the pipeline, meanwhile, said the delay would cost Americans jobs and do nothing to address the country’s ongoing dependence on imported oil. Stephen Brown, vice president of government affairs for the Tesoro oil refinery, said Obama was lucky that Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R) had come out against the pipeline.
“Terrible decision for the energy future of the country, brilliant decision for the president’s reelection campaign,” Brown said by e-mail. “And the administration owes a debt of thanks to the Republican leaders of Nebraska for providing an escape hatch on this.”