WASHINGTON (AP) - The Obama administration is extending indefinitely the amount of time federal agencies have to review the Keystone XL pipeline, the State Department said Friday, likely punting the decision over the controversial oil pipeline past the midterm elections.
The State Department didn't say how much longer agencies will have to weigh in but cited a recent decision by a Nebraska judge overturning a state law that allowed the pipeline's path through the state, prompting uncertainty and an ongoing legal battle. Nebraska's Supreme Court isn't expected to rule for another several months, and there could be more legal maneuvering after that. The delay potentially frees President Barack Obama to avoid making a final call on the pipeline until after the November election.
"The agency consultation process is not starting over. The process is ongoing, and the department and relevant agencies are actively continuing their work in assessing the permit application," the State Department said in a statement.
Republicans were quick to blast the latest delay in a review process that has dragged on for more than five years. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., accused Obama of kowtowing to "radical activists" from the environmental community, while House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called the decision "shameful" and said there were no credible reasons for further delay.
"This job-creating project has cleared every environmental hurdle and overwhelmingly passed the test of public opinion, yet it's been blocked for more than 2,000 days," Boehner said in a statement.
In an ironic show of bipartisanship, prominent Democrats from energy-dependent states joined Republicans in blasting the Obama administration for delaying the decision once again. Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, who faces a difficult re-election this year in conservative-leaning Louisiana, said Obama was signaling that a small minority of opponents can tie up the process forever in the courts, sacrificing 42,000 jobs and billions in economic activity in the process.
"This decision is irresponsible, unnecessary and unacceptable," Landrieu said.
But environmental groups fighting the pipeline hailed the delay, arguing that it shows the State Department is taking the arguments against the pipeline seriously.
"This is definitely great news," said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for the League of Conservation Voters. "We are very confident as they continue to examine the issues with the lack of legal route in Nebraska and the terrible climate impacts, at the end of the day the pipeline will be rejected."
State Department officials said other U.S. agencies will be notified of the new deadline to weigh in once the legal situation in Nebraska becomes clearer. At the core of the delay is a concern that the legal wrangling in Nebraska could lead to a change in the pipeline's route that would affect agencies' assessments, said the officials, who weren't authorized to comment by name and demanded anonymity.
Officials declined Friday to say when a final decision would take place but said the process should proceed "as expeditiously as possible." They added that the State Department is moving forward with other aspects of its review that must take place before determining whether approving the pipeline is in the U.S. national interest.
The White House has insisted that Secretary of State John Kerry is in charge of the process, since the pipeline crosses the U.S.-Canada border and falls under the State Department's jurisdiction. But President Barack Obama is widely expected to make the final call and, in a nod to environmentalists' concerns, has said the pipeline will be deemed not in the U.S. interest if it contributes significantly to increasing carbon dioxide emissions.
The White House declined to comment on the State Department's announcement, which came on Friday afternoon, when many Americans were observing Good Friday and preparing for the Easter holiday. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., accused the administration of seizing that opportunity to downplay news of the latest delay.
Obama and environmental groups dispute the notion that the pipeline would create many permanent jobs or have a substantial economic impact, but Obama has refused to say whether he will nix it. The 1,179-mile pipeline would travel through Montana and South Dakota to a hub in Nebraska, where it would connect with existing pipelines to carry more than 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day to refineries in Texas.
The pipeline project, proposed by Canadian company TransCanada, has become a proxy for a larger battle between environmental activists and energy advocates over climate change and the future of American energy.
"We are disappointed that politics continue to delay a decision on Keystone XL," said Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
In January, the State Department said that building the pipeline would not significantly boost carbon emissions because the oil was likely to find its way to market no matter what. Transporting the oil by rail or truck would cause greater environmental problems than the pipeline, the report said.
The State Department has jurisdiction because the pipeline would cross the border between the U.S. and Canada.