Administration extending agency comment period for Keystone pipeline

By Derrick Cain

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WASHINGTON, April 18, 2014 - The State Department announced today that it is extending the comment period for federal agencies to submit views on the controversial Keystone pipeline project.

The administration's move prompted immediate criticism from several lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, some of whom have accused the administration of trying to delay making a decision on the project until after the mid-term elections in November. Other lawmakers and stakeholders argue that more review of the project is necessary.

The department said federal agencies need additional time because of uncertainty created by on-going litigation in the Nebraska Supreme Court over the route of the pipeline. The department further said it will continue to review the approximate 2.5 million public comments it received. It did not specify how much time agencies will need.

“The agency consultation process is not starting over,” the department said in a statement. “The process is ongoing, and the department and relevant agencies are actively continuing their work in assessing the permit application.”

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The statement said, “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 department will give the agencies sufficient time to submit their views.”

The pipeline, a project of the TransCanada Corp., would transport oil from the Alberta tar oil sands in Canada to refineries along the Gulf Coast. Opponents argue the 1,700-mile project would increase global warming and make the U.S. more dependent on “dirty fossil fuel.” The Obama administration has repeatedly said the pipeline needs more study, while supporters have said it would create thousands of jobs and lower U.S. reliance on foreign oil.

TransCanada President and CEO Russ Girling said his company is “disappointed and frustrated with yet another delay,” calling it “inexplicable.” Girling argued that rising North American oil production will lead to more Keystone oil shipments by rail and barge, which TransCanada says leads to higher greenhouse gas emissions than the pipeline would create. “Not building Keystone XL is a lose, lose, lose scenario any way you look at it,” Girling said.

In Congress, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, was one of several lawmakers who criticized this new delay. “On a day when many Americans are observing Good Friday and preparing for Easter, the administration took the opportunity to quietly announce yet another Keystone delay despite the five successful environmental reviews of the energy project,” Thune said.

Thune noted that the State Department has said the Keystone pipeline will support more than 40,000 jobs. “It's disappointing that the president today chose to further pander to his extreme environmental donor base over the 10 million jobless Americans looking for work.”

Echoing Thune, Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., said, “It's shameful that as we begin spring construction season, hundreds of my constituents will be denied an opportunity to go to work on a project that will help secure America's energy future solely because the president wants to placate his political base in an election year.”

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said she was disappointed that the initial 90-day comment period, which was supposed to end in early May, may go on for an undetermined time.

“Once again, we're hearing more delays and more uncertainty over the Keystone XL pipeline,” Heitkamp said. “It's absolutely ridiculous that this well-over five-year-long process is continuing for an undetermined amount of time.”

In agreement with the administration, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the State Department was right to delay the decision on the pipeline. “Given the unprecedented number of comments from the public on the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, and the legal uncertainties due to lawsuits in Nebraska, the State Department was entirely correct to delay a decision on the pipeline,” Boxer said. 

CREDO, an organization that describes itself as a national progressive group, has been working to stop the pipeline for environmental reasons. “It is deeply disappointing that Secretary [John] Kerry and President Obama can't yet muster the courage to stand up to the oil industry and reject Keystone XL,” said Elijah Zarlin, CREDO's senior campaign manager. “Still, this is yet another defeat for TransCanada, tar sands developers like the Koch brothers, and oil-soaked politicians.” 

This story was updated at 7:30 pm. 

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