TransCanada asks for "pause" on Keystone decision

If any one word could describe the Keystone XL pipeline approval process, “pause” seems most appropriate. The Obama administration has sat on the application for the oil pipeline for almost the entirety of its existence while the Canadians and thousands of prospective jobs dangle in limbo. Now TransCanada has requested a more formal pause for perhaps as long as year or more, ostensibly to settle a question about the path of the pipeline. Given the political situation in both countries, this might be a pause of another kind:

TransCanada, the company behind the controversial Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the U.S Gulf Coast, has asked the U.S. State Department to pause its review of the project. The move comes as the Obama administration increasingly appears likely to reject the pipeline permit application before leaving office in January 2017.

TransCanada said Monday it had sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry requesting that the State Department suspend its review of the pipeline application. The pipeline company said such a suspension would be appropriate while it works with Nebraska authorities to secure approval of its preferred route through the state that is facing legal challenges in state courts. TransCanada anticipated it would take seven to 12 months to get route approval from Nebraska authorities.

“We have just received TransCanada’s letter to Secretary Kerry and are reviewing it. In the meantime, consideration under the Executive Order continues,” State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said.

In other words, the State Department won’t commit to adding more pause to its six-years-plus pause. Bear in mind that the same State Department won’t commit to ending its review either, at least not in any time frame other than the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. That word came yesterday, before TransCanada asked for a delay to lock in the Nebraska route, which is the first timeframe of any kind to which the White House has committed itself:

Earlier Monday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that “our expectation at this point . . . is that the president will make a decision before the end of his administration on the Keystone pipeline, but when exactly that will be I don’t know at this point.”

Both Senators from North Dakota, one Republican and one Democrat, blasted the White House for its passive-aggressive kneecapping of the Keystone project:

Backers of the pipeline, including Sens. John Hoeven (R) and Heidi Heitkamp (D) of North Dakota, issued statements Monday saying the administration had effectively killed the project.

“It is clear President Obama was going to deny the permit,” Hoeven said. “The costly delay has prevented the company from proceeding on a new pipeline that would have brought oil from Canada and the Bakken to U.S. refineries and jobs and revenue to local communities.”

The election of Justin Trudeau might have made this a moot point. In fact, the State Department might be pausing now to see whether Canada’s new Liberal government will strike down Keystone and prevent Obama from taking the political hit from doing it himself. Trudeau claims to be pro-Keystone but his party is very much opposed to it, and one presumes they’re not fond of the oil sands in Alberta either. Stephen Harper threatened to sell the oil to China if the US didn’t act to approve Keystone, but will a Liberal government export lower-grade petroleum and (arguably) contribute to global warming? That seems less than sure, to say the least, especially in the short run with prices as low as $50 a barrel for high-quality crude.

In other words, while the State Department can deny TransCanada’s request for a pause, don’t expect a rush to a decision either. The pause strategy has worked for more than six years, and Obama may end up riding it all the way to January 19, 2017.