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Obama won't decide on the Keystone pipeline until after the November elections

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the southern site of the Keystone XL pipeline on March 22, 2012 in Cushing, Oklahoma. Obama is pressing federal agencies to expedite the section of the Keystone XL pipeline between Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the southern site of the Keystone XL pipeline on March 22, 2012 in Cushing, Oklahoma. Obama is pressing federal agencies to expedite the section of the Keystone XL pipeline between Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Obama administration isn't likely to make a decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline extension until after the midterm elections this November.

Keystone-pipeline-route_mediumOn Friday, the US State Department said it would provide more time for other federal agencies to comment on the proposed pipeline. The delay came because agencies are waiting on a court challenge in Nebraska that could decide the pipeline's final route. And, at the moment, a final decision doesn't seem likely until November or later.

What is the Keystone pipeline? The Keystone XL extension would transport 830,000 barrels of oil per day from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada down to Steele City, Nebraska — where the oil would then travel on to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

Since this section would cross the US-Canada border, the State Department has to approve it first. And no matter what the Obama administration ultimately decides, he's likely to upset either environmentalists or industry groups.

Arguments for the pipeline: Oil companies and the Canadian government want the pipeline approved. Over the last decade, they’ve started extracting oil from Alberta’s oil sands — a gooey mix of sand, clay, and oil. But they’re finding it difficult to ship all that oil to refineries who can turn it into usable fuel. The pipeline would help with that, by offering easier connections to refineries down in Texas.

Labor unions also back the project: A State Department review found that the pipeline would support 42,000 jobs over its two-year construction period and contribute roughly $3.4 billion to the economy.

And it's broadly popular: one 2013 poll found that 66 percent of Americans support the project.

Arguments against the pipeline: Green groups, on the other hand, are asking Obama to block the pipeline. They don’t want Canada’s tar sands industry to expand at all.

Environmentalists point out that extracting oil from Canada's tar sands is a particularly dirty process that produces 17 percent more carbon dioxide than regular oil production does over the entire life-cycle. That's likely to exacerbate global warming. Better to leave the oil in the ground, they say, and start shifting toward cleaner energy alternatives.

Obama's position: President Obama has said that he would only approve Keystone XL if the project does not "significantly exacerbate" carbon-dioxide emissions. Yet a recent State Department review may have given him some wiggle room — it argued that approving the pipeline might have an insignificant environmental impact, because most of the oil will likely find its way to market by rail regardless.

Environmental groups have disputed the idea that rail transport can save Canada's tar sands. So has the Environmental Protection Agency, for that matter (see here). Now the EPA and other government agencies will have additional time to weigh in here.

(Map: Wikimedia Commons)