If the Keystone XL pipeline debate has a soundtrack, I'm guessing it includes a track from Snoop Dogg that's even older than TransCanada Corp.'s application for a permit. That would be 2004's "Drop It Like It's Hot." Because every time it seems poised to make a decision, the Obama administration's fingers get all buttery.
On Friday, the State Department disclosed that it would give eight federal agencies more time to weigh in on the application. How much more? As much as they want, evidently.
"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 State Department intoned. "The department will give the agencies sufficient time to submit their views."
Remember, the feds have spent more than five years considering the pipeline. The State Department issued a final supplemental environmental impact statement in January. The public comment period closed almost six weeks ago. The agencies had been given 90 days, or three times as many as the public had, to offer their views. How much more time could the agencies need?
The only new factor mentioned in the announcement was the legal wrangling in Nebraska over part of the pipeline's route. As my colleagues David Lauter and Lisa Mascaro pointed out, the administration initially said that the court fight wouldn't be a factor in its deliberations. On Friday, however, the State Department said the eight agencies "need additional time based on the uncertainty created by the ongoing litigation."
And so we have another delay that, by Lauter and Mascaro's estimate, should push any decision on Keystone XL past the November election. And for vulnerable Senate Democrats, that's the perfect scenario. With President Obama having turned into a political albatross, Democrats in red and swing states are doing everything they can to distance themselves from the administration on high-profile issues. That includes introducing bills to change unpopular parts of the 2010 healthcare law and blasting the administration for dragging its feet on Keystone XL.
Just last week, six of those senators joined five other Senate Democrats on a letter urging Obama to give the agencies no more than 90 days to weigh in, and to set a definitive timetable for a decision. The final call should come by May 31, they wrote, so TransCanada won't miss this year's construction season (if its application is approved).
That request appears to have fallen on deaf ears. Yet keeping the project in limbo may help those vulnerable Democrats more than deciding its fate. If the administration rejects the permit, it would anger conservative energy-state voters. But if it approves the application, it would discourage the environmentalists Democrats desperately need to turn out in November.
I can only speculate about the administration's motives in slowing the process. To me, the questions presented by the application seem straightforward enough to warrant more expeditious action.
The first issue is whether the pipeline is well designed and capable of transporting the oil safely. After that, the only real policy question is whether the project would exacerbate the environmental damage caused by extracting oil from Canada's tar sands. Whether it will be extracted is a foregone conclusion, according to Canadian officials.
If that's the case, then it's just a matter of deciding whether it would be better or worse for the environment to pump the oil through the Keystone XL pipeline to U.S. refineries in Oklahoma and Texas or to transport it through other means (pipeline, train, tanker) to refineries in other countries.
Those have been the issues all along, haven't they? And if so, why does the administration keep putting off answering them?
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