Last updated: April 18, 2014 11:05 pm

US delays ruling on Keystone oil pipeline

A demonstrator holds a sign in protest against the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline in San Francisco, California February 3, 2014. REUTERS/Stephen Lam (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS CIVIL UNREST ENVIRONMENT ENERGY) - RTX186XD©Reuters

Protests against Keystone have been numerous

The US administration has delayed its ruling on the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, potentially deferring until after November elections a decision that is dividing opinion among Democrats.

The state department said yesterday it was suspending its collection of comments from federal agencies about the pipeline, because a court case in Nebraska had created uncertainty about its proposed route.

The planned 1,897km (1,179 mile) pipeline has been under review for five years and is seen as a test of whether Barack Obama, US president, favours development of the oil industry or efforts to fight global warming.

An official at the state department, which is in charge of the pipeline ruling, said: “I cannot render a judgment on when the final decision will take place.” But he added: “Our goal is to do it as expeditiously as we can.”

The delay raised the prospect that the decision would not come until after the November midterm elections, when Democrats are in danger of losing their majority in the Senate.

Analysts say that if Mr Obama approved the pipeline he would damage his standing with Democrats worried about the environment, but if he blocked it he would hurt Democrats in oil-producing states.

The delay was welcomed by environmental groups who say the pipeline will accelerate climate change by spurring more production from the oil sands of Alberta, even though a state department report in January said production would expand without it.

The delay was criticised immediately by Republicans, the oil industry and Democratic politicians from oil states.

Mary Landrieu, a Democratic senator from oil-producing Louisiana who is vulnerable in the midterms, said: “Today’s decision by the administration amounts to nothing short of an indefinite delay of the Keystone pipeline. This decision is irresponsible, unnecessary and unacceptable.

“By making it clear that they will not move the process forward until there is a resolution in a lawsuit in Nebraska, the administration is sending a signal that the small minority who oppose the pipeline can tie up the process in court forever.”

The pipeline would run from Alberta to southern Nebraska. Its sponsor is a company called Trans­Canada.

Tom Steyer, a billionaire environmentalist and founder of a campaign group called NextGen Climate, cheered the decision as “rotten eggs for TransCanada” and good news for those who want to reduce carbon pollution.

“If it’s going to take more time for them to realise that approving this pipeline is contrary to the president’s own [climate] criteria, then let them take the time,” he told the Financial Times.

Mr Steyer, who is assembling a $100m war chest for the elections, said claims made by pipeline proponents about the jobs it would create were exaggerated.

The state department official said: “All of us would prefer to be in a position where we had certainty of the exact timeline. We’re in a position where we can’t have that exact certainty because there are just practical developments that require additional analysis and consideration.”

John Boehner, Republican Speaker of the House, said: “This delay is shameful . . . there is little this administration isn’t willing to sacrifice for politics.”

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