When TransCanada applied to build the Keystone XL pipeline, John McCain had just picked a little-known Alaska governor as his running mate in a desperate attempt to stop the presidential campaign juggernaut of a freshman senator named Barack Obama.
Saturday marks seven years since the day TransCanada applied for its permit to build the pipeline from the Canadian oil sands, through the United States’ midsection and on to refineries in Texas. As Obama prepares to leave office in a year, there is still no sign of a decision from him on the pipeline.
TransCanada officials met with lawmakers in Washington this week and are girding themselves for a rumored rejection, but they said there is no clue of when the president might come out with a decision.
“We’ve been hearing the same rumors you’ve been hearing about a decision since February. We are well beyond speculating,” said TransCanada spokesman Mark Cooper.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., declared earlier this year that “secret sources” were telling him the president would reject the pipeline in August. When that didn’t happen, a columnist for Canada’s Financial Post then cited her own “well-connected source” that Obama would deny the permit before Labor Day.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Hoeven can at least “take some solace” that he isn’t the only person striking out in predicting that a decision is coming.
Earnest, though, would not answer questions on the Keystone review. “I would, as always, refer you to the State Department,” he told reporters.
State Department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson did not respond to questions. The State Department’s environmental analysis downplayed the impact of the pipeline, but the agency is still reviewing TransCanada’s application and hasn’t sent it to the White House.
The State Department is in charge of reviewing the pipeline because it crosses the international border with Canada. Such reviews normally go much faster than seven years. But no other project has taken on such a symbolic status at the heart of the national debate over energy and climate change, with environmentalists saying that the pipeline would promote development of the carbon-intensive oil sands and risk spills that are especially difficult to clean up.
Much of the Keystone review happened under Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state. Clinton has refused to say what she thinks about the project, but she said Thursday while campaigning in New Hampshire that she’ll reveal her views “soon.”
“I have been waiting for the administration to make a decision. . . . I can’t wait too much longer. I am putting the White House on notice. I am going to tell you what I think soon,” she said.
It would be very surprising if they took a decision before they had to.
Kevin Book, managing director of ClearView Energy Partners
Environmentalists accuse the president of climate hypocrisy in opening the Arctic Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean to oil and gas drilling. “We hope the upcoming Keystone decision strikes a different note,” said Bill McKibben, founder of the climate group 350.org.
Cindy Schild, senior operations manager for the American Petroleum Institute lobbying group, suggested that the Canadian election on Oct. 19 or the international climate talks set for Paris at the end of the year might influence the timing of Obama’s decision.
“With this unprecedented delay to approve Keystone, President Obama continues to put politics over job creation and smart energy policy,” Schild said.
Energy analyst Kevin Book said he doesn’t expect a decision before South Dakota decides on recertification of its permit for Keystone, which TransCanada hopes will come by year’s end.
“The Obama administration has no incentive to move ahead of any state government that still has an open matter pending before it,” said Book, managing director of ClearView Energy Partners, an energy research firm in Washington. “It would be very surprising if they took a decision before they had to.”
Keystone doesn’t matter nearly as much to the energy markets as when first proposed.
The State Department’s environmental analysis appears to point toward approval for the pipeline, but Obama’s increasing rhetoric on the risks of climate change suggests a rejection, Book said. The result is a wait.
There’s also a court trial beginning next month in Nebraska as local landowners challenge a state law allowing TransCanada to use eminent domain to route the pipeline through their land.
“We’ve stood strong and united for six years now,” said Jane Kleeb, a Nebraska activist fighting the pipeline.
Keystone doesn’t matter nearly as much to the energy markets as when first proposed, and the global oil price collapse is endangering Canadian oil sands projects the pipeline would tap into.
But TransCanada is betting oil prices will recover over the long term and insists the pipeline remains viable.
Book said that depends on where oil prices go. While energy companies have turned to rail as an alternative, he said the Keystone pipeline is still the best option to get the Canadian oil to the Gulf Coast.
“It matters for the long-term investment prospects of the oil sands,” he said.
White House correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report.