President Obama, denouncing a "rushed and arbitrary deadline' set by congressional Republicans, announced Wednesday that he was rejecting a Canadian firm's application for a permit to build and operate the Keystone XL pipeline, a massive project that would have stretched from Canada's oil sands to refineries in Texas.
Obama said that a Feb. 21 deadline set by Congress as part of the two-month payroll tax cut extension had made it impossible to do an adequate review of the project proposed by TransCanada, but he left open the door to the possibility that a new proposal might pass regulatory muster.
"This announcement is not a judgment on the merits of the pipeline, but the arbitrary nature of a deadline that prevented the State Department from gathering the information necessary to approve the project and protect the American people,' the president said in a statement.
This is the second time the Obama administration has tried to deflect political pressure over the $7 billion, 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline, which last year sparked debate over U.S. energy and environmental policy. At one point, about 12,000 people demonstrated outside the White House against the project, while the oil industry, construction unions and Canadian government all lobbied in favor of it.
The decision Wednesday and the language Obama used made clear that the White House, far from pushing off a political issue until after the election as it once hoped, was fully engaged in a battle with pipeline proponents. Obama defended his administration's record on energy security, while pledging to protect the "health and safety' of Americans.
While the current Keystone XL permit application is dead, the pipeline might not be. The administration will allow TransCanada to reapply for a permit after it develops an alternate route around the sensitive habitat of Nebraska's Sandhills.
TransCanada's chief executive, Russ Girling, issued a statement saying that the company would reapply and that he expected that "a new application would be processed in an expedited manner' so that the pipeline could be carrying crude by late 2014. "While we are disappointed, TransCanada remains fully committed to the construction of Keystone XL,' he said.
Kerri-Ann Jones, the State Department's assistant secretary in the bureau of oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, said that while "we would be able to draw on the information that's out there,' if TransCanada files "a new application, it will trigger a new process.'
The administration's move did nothing to delay a debate that could help define the campaign fight between Republicans and Democrats. Environmental groups have lobbied against the project, arguing that the extraction of oil sands -- a process more akin to strip mining than oil drilling -- is so energy intensive that it contributes to climate change. They also assert that the pipeline could leak, possibly endangering the giant Ogallala aquifer that provides drinking and irrigation water in much of the Great Plains.