WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Friday extended the review period on the Keystone XL pipeline, perhaps pushing back a final decision on the disputed project until after the Nov. 4 congressional elections.
The State Department announced that officials need more time to review some 2.5 million public comments, and to assess the impact of a pending lawsuit in Nebraska that could change the route of the pipeline.
Republicans (and some Democrats) who support the pipeline denounced the delay — placing the blame on President Obama — while environmental groups hailed it as a sign that the project will not move forward.
In its statement, the department, citing an "unprecedented" number of public comments on Keystone, did not provide a specific date for the end of the review.
"The permit process will conclude once factors that have a significant impact on determining the national interest of the proposed project have been evaluated and appropriately reflected in the decision documents," the statement said, not providing a specific deadline. "The Department will give the agencies sufficient time to submit their views."
In criticizing the delay, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said: "Here's the single greatest shovel-ready project in America — one that could create thousands of jobs right away — but the President simply isn't interested."
He added: "Apparently radical activists carry more weight than Americans desperate to get back on the job."
While the State Department is reviewing the proposal, Obama has said he will make the final decision on the pipeline based on the national interest.
Environmental advocates oppose the Keystone pipeline, saying it would cause ecological damage along its route from the tar sands of Canada to the Gulf Coast.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said the State Department did the right thing in pushing back the review, "given the unprecedented number of comments from the public."
Rachel Wolf, a spokesperson for a group called the All Risk, No Reward Coalition, said that "every day without Keystone XL is a day that we keep high-carbon tar sands in the ground."
The latest postponement "confirms, yet again, that this project is not permit-able," she said. "This export pipeline fails the climate test, fails the jobs test, and doesn't even have a legal route."
Democratic lawmakers who support the proposed oil pipeline also criticized the latest delay.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who faces a tough re-election bid in November, said "Today's decision by the Administration amounts to nothing short of an indefinite delay of the Keystone Pipeline."
In November 2011, the administration announced that it was reconsidering the pipeline route, which would delay the final decision beyond the 2012 elections.
The State Department is reviewing the Keystone project because it involves another country, Canada, and the final decision could have diplomatic ramifications.
The lawsuit in Nebraska could not only change the pipeline route, but affect the timing of the final decision.
A state judge in Nebraska overturned a state law that would permit the pipeline's path, a decision that has been appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court. It may not rule for months, and that decision could also be appealed, pushing the matter well past the Nov. 4 election date.
In the meantime, Republicans have vowed to make Keystone a major issue in many elections, though some environmentalists have as well.
Tom Steyer, a billionaire environmentalist who has vowed to spend as much as $100 million on behalf of candidates who back climate change legislation, said the Keystone pipeline will "significantly increase carbon pollution (via) some of the world's dirtiest oil."
Steyer said he and his organization, NextGen Climate, "will continue to stand up for politicians and leaders who have the courage to stand up to special interests, like Big Oil, who are in this fight for their own bottom line."
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., one of 11 Senate Democrats who signed a letter to Obama seeking a specific time frame for a Keystone decision, expressed frustration with the latest delay.
"It's absolutely ridiculous that this well-over-five-year-long process is continuing for an undetermined amount of time," she said.