The hotly debated Keystone XL pipeline project took one step forward and one step back yesterday as Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R) approved a revised pipeline route through his state.
At the same time, the State Department said that a final Obama administration decision on the proposed TransCanada Corp. pipeline has been delayed until after March.
"We don't anticipate being able to conclude our own review before the end of the first quarter of this year," said Victoria Nuland, a department spokeswoman, at a daily press briefing.
The State Department is expected to release a draft environmental impact assessment on the $5.3 billion northern branch of the pipeline in the coming days. The project, which would link the Alberta oil sands to the Texas Gulf Coast, must be reviewed by the department because it crosses international borders.
The controversial pipeline has become a political touchstone in Washington, D.C. Oil industry supporters argue that the project would provide jobs and energy security for the economically wobbly nation.
Environmental activists insist that producing oil from oil sands is more carbon-intensive than conventional oil production and would worsen global warming. They also warn pipelines spills could ruin critical middle-American aquifers.
In a letter to the State Department and President Obama, Heineman said the new pipeline route would cause "minimal environmental impacts" to Nebraska and would provide $418.1 million in local economic benefits.
TransCanada changed the route of the pipeline after Obama last year rejected an earlier permit application over worries that the project would cross the Ogallala Aquifer and Nebraska's environmentally sensitive Sand Hills region.
The new route avoids the Sand Hills but still crosses part of the aquifer, although the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality concluded that any spill-related impacts would be localized and would be cleaned up by TransCanada (Greenwire, Jan. 22).
Heineman's decision won praise from TransCanada, industry lobbyists and Capitol Hill Republicans. Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Heineman's decision "is the right one for Nebraska and the nation."
Taking aim at Obama, she added, "The time for delay is over. The president needs to stop blocking the Keystone XL project and allow folks to get to work."
Echoing those comments, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the Nebraska governor's approval "clears the way for President Obama to move quickly and also approve KXL for the benefit of our nation and its workers."
"After extensive public consultation and exhaustive review, the President can confidently move forward on this critical project that will increase America's energy security and generate much needed jobs and investment," said Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber's Institute for 21st Century Energy, in a statement.
But environmentalists and liberal Democrats said Obama's decision on the pipeline will be a litmus test for his inaugural address promise to tackle climate change.
"I don't think there's any way to say that [approval of the pipeline] wouldn't undo some of the good that we've done in America by reducing carbon pollution," Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said yesterday (E&ENews PM, Jan. 22).
350.org Executive Director May Boeve said Obama's decision on Keystone XL should focus on the project's climate change impacts. "Approving Keystone XL would make a mockery of the commitment he made at the inauguration to take action on climate change," she said.
In protesting Heineman's decision, environmental leaders predicted that tens of thousands of anti-pipeline activists will attend a Feb. 17 rally in Washington to urge Obama to reject the Keystone XL project.