Washington – The Obama administration is preparing to delay a decision on the contested Keystone XL pipeline while it studies an alternate route, effectively pushing any action past the 2012 election, officials and lobbyists who have been briefed on the matter said on Thursday. An announcement is expected as early as Thursday afternoon.
The proposed project by a Canadian pipeline company had put President Obama in a political vise, squeezed between demands for secure energy sources and the jobs the project will bring, and the loud opposition of environmental advocates who have threatened to withhold electoral support next year if he approves it.
The $7 billion pipeline, which would run from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, has generated intense opposition from environmentalists and public officials in Nebraska, who claim that it threatens sensitive lands and underground water supplies along its 1,700-mile route. Critics also say that the heavy oil extracted from sand formations in Canada will add to climate change and extend American dependence on fossil fuels.
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The administration in recent days has been exploring ways to put off the decision until after the 2012 election, fearing further alienation of environmental and health advocates who consider the pipeline decision a test of the Obama administration’s commitment to clean energy and air quality. Environmental groups have expressed sharp disappointment with a number of recent administration environmental decisions, including the rejection of a tougher new smog standard proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency and a five-year offshore drilling plan that opens new areas in the Arctic and Gulf of Mexico.
The administration is expected to announce that it will order a study of an alternate route for the pipeline that avoids Nebraska’s Sand Hills region and the Ogallala aquifer. That study could take as long as 18 months, putting an ultimate decision on the project well past next November.
Larry Schweiger, president the National Wildlife Federation, one of many environmental groups opposed to the pipeline project, said Thursday that White House officials had indicated to his organization that a decision to change the plans for the pipeline was imminent.
“The way I understand it, the process will be altered and altered to make sure all of our concerns are considered,” he said.
A spokesman for the environmental group added that the White House had indicated that considering a new route for the pipeline would essentially delay the project by 12 to 18 months.
The State Department’s inspector general announced earlier this week that he was looking into charges of conflict of interest and improper political influence in the preparation of the project’s environmental impact statement. Last week, the State Department’s spokeswoman said that a target date of Dec. 31 for determining whether the pipeline was in the national interest could slip.
Mr. Obama, in an interview with KETV in Omaha last week, said that he, not the State Department, would make the final decision based on “what’s best for the American people.”
He cited protection of the Nebraska aquifer and the health of the American people as considerations in his decision.
Yet he also said that he would weigh domestic energy needs as a factor. He has been under considerable pressure from the oil and gas industry and their allies in Congress to increase domestic oil production and approve the pipeline to bring oil from a friendly neighbor.
“We need to encourage domestic natural gas and oil production,” Mr. Obama said in the television interview. “We need to make sure that we have energy security and aren’t just relying on Middle East sources. But there’s a way of doing that and still making sure that the health and safety of the American people and folks in Nebraska are protected, and that’s how I’ll be measuring these recommendations when they come to me.”
Opponents of the project have organized two large protests outside the White House, including one on Sunday in which several thousand protesters encircled the mansion demanding that the president kill the pipeline. Earlier this year more than 1,000 protesters were arrested in large demonstrations across from the White House.