The U.S. State Department said on Friday it was giving regulatory agencies more time to weigh in on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline from Canada, effectively delaying the decision on whether to approve it until after the Nov. 4 midterm elections.
President Barack Obama has said he would soon make a final decision on whether to allow the pipeline connecting Canada's oil sands region to Texas refiners, and that several government agencies had been given until the end of May to weigh in. This had raised expectations of a final decision by midyear on the project.
However, on Friday officials cited uncertainty stemming from a dispute in Nebraska over the proposed route of the pipeline as reason to keep the federal agency comment period open longer, throwing into doubt the timing of a project that has been awaiting a U.S. permit for more than five years.
"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 State Department said.
TransCanada Corp. first proposed the 1,179-mile pipeline to transport tar sands oil from Canada through the heartland of America to Texas refineries in 2009, and it immediately came under fire from environmental groups and, more recently, a number of Nobel Peace Prize laureates.
Keystone opponents say that burning fossil fuels to wrench tar sands crude oil from the ground will worsen climate change and that the $5.4 billion pipeline, which could carry up to 830,000 barrels a day, would only spur more production.
In a letter addressed to Obama on April 15, former President Jimmy Carter and fellow Nobel laureates — South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu among them — urged Obama to show “bold leadership” and not make a “dangerous commitment to the status quo.”
"The rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline would have meaningful and significant impacts in reducing carbon pollution," the laureates wrote.
Environmental groups praised the State Department's announcement on Friday, saying that the pipeline would exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. "This decision is yet another indication that the problems with this pipeline continue to grow and it's a bad idea that needs to be rejected," said Jim Murphy, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation.
Supporters of the project say it will create thousands of jobs and reduce U.S. reliance on oil imports from countries that are less friendly to the U.S. than Canada.
Friday's announcement was met with rebuke by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, an ardent supporter of Keystone XL, as well as Republican members of Congress.
Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, called the delay "shameful," saying the pipeline had "cleared every environmental hurdle." Earlier this year, the State Department reported it had no major environmental objections to the pipeline.
"For no reason other than the president's refusal to stand up to the extreme left, good-paying jobs and North American energy remain out of reach," Boehner said in a statement.
TransCanada has said the pipeline will have upgraded safety measures, including remote-control shutoff valves and frequent inspections. It has already built the southern leg of the pipeline, between Oklahoma and Texas.
The section of the project that still requires approval would cross Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.