Long wait expected on Keystone decision

 

All signs point to President Obama delaying a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline until after the midterm elections, supporters and opponents say.

On Friday, the State Department stopped the clock with only 14 days left on its 90-day interagency review of the pipeline, allowing the eight involved agencies more time to submit their comments on whether the $5.4 billion project is in the nation's best interest.

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The reason: a Nebraska county judge's ruling in February that struck down the pipeline's route through the state, leaving roughly 200 miles of the project in limbo.

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R) and Attorney General Jon Bruning have appealed the case, and the state's Supreme Court has agreed to hear it, but no court date has been set.

While the State Department said the litigation in Nebraska is the "core reason" for the delay, it wouldn't offer a specific timeline for restarting the process.

"We don't want to exclude the possibility of ways of getting a better understanding of what that route might be before there is a final decision by the Nebraska Supreme Court. We want to be open and flexible to any changes and information and circumstances that could allow us to move more expeditiously," a senior State Department official told reporters last week.

Still, groups like Bold Nebraska, a coalition of anti-Keystone landowners and ranchers, think a scenario in which the administration gets ahead of the Nebraska ruling is highly unlikely.

"Obama will definitely wait past midterms because, if they just wait a couple of months, it would seem as though he is flip-flopping," said Jane Kleeb, director of Bold Nebraska. "Right now the administration has been on message, and this was a very logical decision."

The White House has repeatedly turned to the regulatory process when questioned on the timing of a possible decision, stating it would not get ahead of the State Department's review, which now includes a deep dive into the situation in Nebraska.

If the state's high court upholds the lower court's ruling, however, that might delay a decision even further because pipeline developer TransCanada would need to reapply to the Nebraska Public Service Commission, starting a process that could take up to seven months.

But, if the administration is prescribed to sticking to "the letter of process," said Ross Hammond of Friends of the Earth, then he doesn't see how the agency could make a determination on the pipeline when a sizable area of the route is in question.

Adding further cause for concern is TransCanada's permit in South Dakota, which Kleeb says will hit its four-year marker on June 20.

After four years of zero construction, TransCanada will have to make a filing with the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, confirming the conditions under the permit are still valid.

The Canadian pipeline developer said it isn't worried about its permit in South Dakota, but Kleeb says opponents are more organized this time around and will try to derail it.

As for the political motive behind a delay, the White House maintains that the State Department's decision to freeze the review of the oil-sands pipeline was based solely on procedure.

The move doesn't hurt the administration politically though, Kleeb said, adding that this will only help pro-Keystone XL Democrats facing reelection this year.

"This helps red state Democrats who get to rail against the administration on something other than ObamaCare," Kleeb said. "Obama just secured those Democrats a seat."

Friends of the Earth's Hammond agrees, contending that pro-fossil fuel Democrats facing stiff election races like Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), and Mark Warner (Va.), won't win or lose on Keystone.

Landrieu herself has made similar comments, stating her election would be won by her actions alone, not anything coming out of the White House.

Still, Keystone XL advocates can bet Landrieu will have their back in the months ahead.

Landrieu, who is chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, plans to hold a hearing on Keystone XL in May, shortly after Congress returns from recess.

Now that the administration has taken a step in the opposite direction when it comes to setting a hard deadline for the project, a request Landrieu pressed Obama on in a recent letter, she might follow through on her threat of legislation that would speed up approval of the pipeline.

Landrieu's office didn't respond to requests for comment, but fellow pro-energy Democrat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) said she expects a fired-up discussion among those who support the project when lawmakers return next week.

Supporters of the pipeline said Friday's decision wouldn't stop their campaigns against anti-Keystone lawmakers, or their fight for approval of the project.

"It is disingenuous to say that this decision was not a political decision," Terry O'Sullivan, president of Laborers' International Union of North America told The Hill. " But we are going to keep pressing for passage."

Still, O'Sullivan holds no illusions that Obama will make a final call before the midterms.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) echoed that sentiment last week.

While Republicans and pro-Keystone Democrats say they will explore all options necessary when they return from spring recess, Hoeven said Obama's "strategy is defeat through delay."