President Obama's decision Thursday to put off the decision of whether to permit the controversial Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico drew cheers from his environmentalist supporters but heightened criticism from opponents eager for jobs and fuel for the ailing U.S. economy.
The 1,700-mile pipeline would carry oil extracted from Canada's tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico, crossing plains states and the enormous Ogallala aquifer. It has been the target of increased protest and opposition from environmentalists and residents of those states, who complain that the corrosive oil poses a spill threat. In addition, extracting tar sands oil requires a great deal of energy, making the fuel's carbon footprint high, environmentalists say.
To be built, the pipeline requires approval of the U.S. State Department, which on Thursday announced it would study alternative routes, effectively delaying the permit process until after the presidential election next November.
Leading environmental groups said the pipeline proposal was effectively dead, while labor, energy and Republican factions decried the loss of an opportunity to boost supplies of oil and create jobs.
“The lobbying groups pushing for delay are using a whole raft of phony arguments, like air quality. They are ignoring the obvious: Every barrel of oil from Canada means one less from OPEC –- improving national security and reducing the risk of oil spills from tankers," said S. Fred Singer, a senior fellow for environment policy at the Heartland Institute, a conservative group that casts doubt on climate change.
"This will merely show voters that the Obama administration cares more about appeasing its environmental activist allies than doing what is right for our economy and our nation’s energy security," said James Taylor, another senior fellow at the policy group.
Courtney Hight, a former Obama White House staff member and co-director of the Energy Action Coalition, said the move encouraged the mostly young protesters who had pressed the administration to stand up to oil companies and meet its environmental promises made during the 2008 campaign.
"For the last three months, young voters have been calling on President Obama to stand up to Big Oil and deny the Keystone XL pipeline," the group said in a statement. "In this next round of review, young voters will continue to hold the Obama administration accountable to their commitment to fully consider the climate and environmental justice concerns surrounding Keystone XL. This is a major step in President Obama fulfilling his campaign promises to end the tyranny of oil in the United States and usher in a clean energy economy."
The Center for American Progress praised the State Department's new caution toward the pipeline.
"The State Department’s announcement that it will take the time to carefully examine alternative Keystone XL pipeline routes is essential to protect the Sand Hill region over the Ogallala Aquifer from pipeline leaks. The aquifer is life blood for farmers in eight states. Any analysis of alternative routes must ensure that the entire Ogallala is protected, as well as other vital water resources, particularly the Missouri and Mississippi river watersheds," the groups said in a statement.
"The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that we’ve been fighting for months has been effectively killed," said Bill McKibben, head of 350.org, an international climate group. "The president didn’t outright reject the Keystone XL pipeline permit, but a few minutes ago he sent the pipeline back for a thorough re-review that will delay it til 2013. Most analysts agree: The pipeline will never get built."
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) blasted the decision as a job killer.
“By punting on this project,” Boehner said, “the president has made clear that campaign politics are driving U.S. policy decisions at the expense of American jobs.”
TransCanada, the pipeline developer, appeared to hold out hope that the State Department would agree to a revised route.
“This project is too important to the U.S. economy, the Canadian economy and the national interest of the United States for it not to proceed,” said TransCanada President Russ Girling.
-- Geoff Mohan
Photo: Protesters in front of the White House recently voiced opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Evan Vucci/Associated Press