WASHINGTON -- President Obama told the nation’s governors Monday that a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline could come in a matter of months, signaling he did not intend to let a recent court ruling derail his decision on whether to approve the much-debated project.
The president’s comments came during a question-and-answer session at the White House as part of the annual National Governors Assn. winter meeting. The session was private, but several participants said the president committed to making a decision in a matter of months.
“I did ask the president when we could anticipate a decision on the Keystone pipeline,” said Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, the association’s chairwoman. “Finally, he did come back and say that he anticipates an answer one way or the other in a couple of months.”
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, also a Republican, said Obama indicated the decision would come “soon.”
The White House declined to expand on the president’s remarks, saying only that he would wait until a State Department review of the pipeline was completed. The department last month found that the $5.3-billion project would not have a significant effect on global warming, addressing what the president has said was his top concern. Eight other federal agencies now have until May to respond to that finding, after which the secretary of State will make a recommendation and Obama will have the final say.
Obama has appeared to be in no hurry to build the pipeline, which many environmentalists in the Democratic base strongly oppose, but it became clear Monday that he would not use a Nebraska court battle to further slow down the federal review.
A district court judge on Wednesday ruled that a law giving the Nebraska governor the authority to approve the route of the crude-oil pipeline was unconstitutional. Although the state attorney general has vowed to appeal, Judge Stephanie F. Stacy issued an injunction throwing into question whether the pipeline’s proposed route remained valid during what could be a lengthy appeal process. A ruling from the state Supreme Court could take up to a year.
The State Department said Monday that, for now, the court decision would not affect its review, which is required because the pipeline would cross an international border.
“At this time, the State Department is continuing its review of the presidential permit application for the proposed project,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “We are monitoring the ongoing litigation in Nebraska.”
The 1,200-mile Keystone XL would carry oil extracted from Canada’s tar sands from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Neb., where it would meet an existing pipeline that carries oil to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
Alberta-based TransCanada, the company seeking to build the pipeline, seized on those comments Monday, saying in a statement that it believed the route “remains valid during the appeal.”
“We have dealt with many issues related to this project in the past and are confident we can overcome this latest hurdle,” said James Millar, a spokesman for the company, which was not a party in the lawsuit.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case -- three property owners with land in the pipeline's path -- disputed the company’s analysis and said the project was now in “limbo.”
“The State Department and president cannot know what route the pipeline will follow, or whether TransCanada will be deemed competent to operate a pipeline, when and if it applies for permission to do so under a valid Nebraska procedure,” said attorney David A. Domina.
Environmentalists also insisted that pipeline had “no legal route.”
“We are confident President Obama will reject this risky pipeline and protect our land, water and property rights,” said Jane Kleeb, director of Bold Nebraska, a state advocacy group.
The White House has not commented on the Nebraska case or on the president’s thinking about the pipeline. Obama has said only that his top criteria in weighing the decision would be the pipeline’s impact on climate change. Although the State Department report seemed to answer that question, the Environmental Protection Agency is among the agencies that have yet to respond to that finding, and it found fault with an earlier environmental assessment by the State Department.
Governors who met with Obama on Monday were uncertain which way the president was leaning.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, said Obama “didn’t show his cards one way or the other.”
“He said some people would be happy and some people would be unhappy,” Jindal said.
But Republican Gov. Rick Perry of Texas told reporters that he knew what Obama would do. “You just write it down: He is going to approve the XL pipeline. He is. I mean there is no defending not opening the XL pipeline,” he said. “I don't know why he’s going to wait for two or three months to do it, but at the end of the day, it is too important to America, it's too important to the security of this country, it's too important to job creation.”