Obama's new opening to delay Keystone?

Green groups say a Nebraska county judge’s ruling this week striking down the Keystone XL pipeline’s route through that state provides an opening for President Obama to delay his decision on the project.

The question, observers say, is whether Obama is interested in another delay during a midterm election year, where delay or rejection of Keystone could hurt Democratic Senate candidates.

Lancaster County Judge Stephanie Stacy’s ruling should put off the State Department’s determination on whether the pipeline is in the national interest, says Melinda Pierce of the Sierra Club.

“I can't imagine State can move forward on the national interest determination when the route is in question,” said Pierce, who added that she can’t envision a scenario where State would move forward until the issues in Nebraska are resolved.

Stacy’s decision struck down a law pushed through by the governor approving the pipeline's route through the state. She ruled that the state’s public service commission must evaluate and approve Keystone’s route.

The ruling might stall an already drawn-out process.

It leaves TransCanada, the company overseeing Keystone’s development, with a decision to challenge the ruling, to wait for new action by Nebraska or to build the pipeline through another state, such as Kansas.

TransCanada remains optimistic that the process will continue. 

“This is a solvable problem,” said Shawn Howard, spokesman for TransCanada. "TransCanada has dealt with many Keystone XL issues in the past and we are confident we can overcome this latest hurdle."

Nebraska groups that had opposed the pipeline’s development, however, cheered the decision and said it gave reason for Obama to delay his own call in approving or rejecting the deal.

“This gives the president enough time to delay a decision to post 2014, even if TransCanada submits all of the documents to the public service commission in time,” said Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska, a coalition of landowners and ranchers bent on fighting the pipeline's route. 

“Over 200 miles of the route is now in limbo. I would be very surprised if the administration moves forward with the interagency review process. They should hit pause,” Kleeb said.

Yet politically, a longer delay might not be in Obama’s interest.

Republicans have been relentless in pressuring Obama to approve the pipeline, which is backed by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), whose reelection race could determine the Senate majority.

Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Mark Begich (Alaska) are two other Democratic incumbents whose interests might be best served by Keystone’s approval.

Howard, the TransCanada spokesman, said there should be no link between Nebraska and Obama’s decision, or the State Department determination.

“It is important to point out the judge’s decision was not based on the merits of the pipeline. It is our view the current 90-day National Interest Determination process that is now underway should not be impacted by this ruling,” he said.