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Obama Administration Delays Keystone XL Pipeline Approval

November 10, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Should President Obama approve a major extension of the Keystone XL pipeline? Ray Suarez discusses that question, which has divided business, environmental groups and labor unions, with The Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the Obama administration’s move to delay action on a contested oil pipeline until after the election.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: The question is, should the president approve a major extension of the Keystone XL pipeline? It’s a debate that divides business, environmental groups and labor unions.

The pipeline would carry oil more than 1,700 miles from the tar sands of Canada to Port Arthur in the U.S. Gulf Coast, passing through half-a-dozen states along the way. In one, Nebraska, there was significant opposition to the plan.

This afternoon, the State Department said it was concerned about the Nebraska part of the route and said finding and reviewing an alternate path could take until 2013.

The president backed the delay, saying: “We should take the time to ensure that all questions are properly addressed and all the potential impacts are properly understood.”

For more, I’m joined by Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post.

Juliet, what did the State Department tell the pipeline developers to do, and what reason did they give?

JULIET EILPERIN, The Washington Post: What they said is actually that they would re-examine other routes within just Nebraska, and that TransCanada, which is the company that is sponsoring this pipeline, would, of course, have to sketch out how that could be done.

And then they would examine whether it could protect a particular reason known as the Sand Hills region within Nebraska, which is where you have seen intense opposition over this project.  

RAY SUAREZ: It’s unusual to have the U.S. State Department making pronouncements on Nebraska, isn’t it? Why is the State Department ruling on a pipeline that runs for almost its entire length through the United States?

JULIET EILPERIN: Interestingly, the reason they have jurisdiction is simply because it’s a pipeline that crosses the U.S.-Canada border. That makes it something that comes under the purview of the State Department, and not other agencies, like the Department of Transportation, which has an agency which traditionally looks at pipelines and how they are handled and constructed.

RAY SUAREZ: Does redrawing the path of the pipeline mean, in effect, starting from scratch, really going back to the drawing board on this?

JULIET EILPERIN: It doesn’t mean starting from scratch, but it certainly raises questions about the economic viability of a project that’s been under scrutiny for more than three years, and now we’re adding at least 15 months to this decision.

So it raises questions about whether, in the end, TransCanada will pursue this, although they do say that they remain hopeful that they will get approval and they’re going to go back and look at it.

RAY SUAREZ: Fill us in on who — how the battle lines have been drawn on this. Who, broadly speaking, is for it, who is against it, and where was the president on all of this?

JULIET EILPERIN: It is interesting.

So, in terms of the proponents, you have an interesting mix of, say, business groups, oil companies, but also labor unions. There are four key labor unions, including plumbers and pipe fitters, operating engineers and so forth, who would benefit from jobs that would be created either by supplying the materials for the pipeline or for constructing and operating it.

As — and on the other side — and you also had the Canadian government, which has been lobbying aggressively to get this passed. On the other side, you have environmentalists, as well as an eclectic mix of folks along the route of the pipeline, which included ranchers and farmers in Nebraska and elsewhere, as well as some Tea Party activists and other conservatives who didn’t like the idea that TransCanada might say that their land had to be used for this pipeline.

So it divided the president’s base. And he had been largely silent about this until just recently, where he did a public interview with an Omaha, Neb., TV station. And it is at that point that he really said that he would be involved in this decision, even though it would be done by the State Department, and that he wanted to weigh these public health and environmental considerations against what he called a few thousand jobs that would be created by the project.

RAY SUAREZ: So how have these various groups that you have sketched out for us reacted to the announcement of the delay?

JULIET EILPERIN: Well, unsurprisingly, what you have had is much enthusiasm from environmentalists and from folks in Nebraska and those along the route who had been opposing it who see this is likely to be a death knell for the pipeline, even though we are not sure whether that is the case.

On the other hand, you have some oil companies, including the head of the American Petroleum Institute, Jack Gerard, who have been scathing in their critique and essentially said this is a move that will undermine jobs. You have had Republicans make that point as well.

RAY SUAREZ: What about the Canadians? Have they had anything to say on this?

JULIET EILPERIN: The natural resources minister has. I have been trying to get in touch in folks. The Canadian ambassador is traveling.

But the natural resources minister said that he remains hopeful that this pipeline will be pursued, that they are not giving up, and that he argued that it would be undermining the United States in terms of both the energy security it could get by getting a supply of oil from a friendly ally, as well as the potential jobs. And so they’re saying that they are still going to push for it.

RAY SUAREZ: The length of this delay, 13 to 15 months, that means it’s either the early months of a new Obama administration or, in fact, the next president of the United States will make this decision, right?

JULIET EILPERIN: Absolutely.

And one of the critiques that some environmentalists have made is, you know, we’re celebrating this, but actually this ultimate decision could be made by a president who might not share our environmental values. So there’s no question this pushes it past the 2012 election. And then the real question is, will Obama make the final decision about this controversial project, or will it be a Republican who would be in office instead?

RAY SUAREZ: After the project is redesigned, what’s the presidential role? Are we still at the point where whoever is making the decision, whatever president is sitting in the Oval Office will still be considering this possibility?

JULIET EILPERIN: Well, it will still be within the purview of the State Department, but, yes, ultimately, the president can — first of all, at any point — the president has delegated this responsibility to the State Department. The president can take it back.

And so at the end of the day, it will be the president, whether it’s President Obama or the person who follows him, who will say yea or nay to this project.

RAY SUAREZ: Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post, thanks for joining us.

JULIET EILPERIN: Thank you, Ray.