A final resolution on the Keystone XL pipeline is still months away, and it’s possible President Obama could wait until after the midterm elections in November to make his decision.
The State Department said in a report Friday that the proposed project, which would send oil from Canada’s tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries, is not likely to lead to a surge in greenhouse-gas emissions. This finding paves a path to yes for Obama, who said last summer he would only approve the pipeline if it didn’t “significantly exacerbate” global warming.
But the report doesn’t mean he will approve a permit for the project, at least not yet, and it doesn’t mean he won’t say no. At the very least, we can expect to wait a few more months.
“They control the clock, and they control the options,” said Kevin Book, managing director of energy consulting firm ClearView Energy Partners.
Supporters of the pipeline in Congress are not happy about the prospect of a long delay for political reasons. “To suggest that this can wait until after a midterm election is nothing more than kicking the can down the road and not doing the job that we were elected to do,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. “I suppose we could quit everything we’re supposed to be doing because of an election. There is always going to be an excuse to delay this.”
Here’s how the process plays out now. Departing from past precedent, the State Department is allowing a 30-day public comment period, which starts Wednesday. According to multiple sources, this time period runs alongside a parallel step where the State Department, in consultation with at least eight different federal agencies, determines whether the pipeline is in the country’s national interest.
The State Department will consider several factors, including energy security and environmental and economic impacts. The process cannot take longer than 90 days, according to the executive order establishing this authority, but it’s unclear when the clock starts. Multiple sources close to the process said it begins when the report is published in the Federal Register.
After the 90-day clock winds down, Secretary of State John Kerry is poised to make a final decision, which includes a 15-day review period for other federal agencies. If any agency requests it, the final decision could be moved from the State Department to the White House, where Obama would make the call. Conventional wisdom suggests that a final answer on this pipeline — which environmentalists have turned into a litmus test on Obama’s commitment to global warming — will come from the White House regardless.
The State Department’s inspector general is also expected to release a report determining whether the contractor for the environmental review — ERM Group — has a conflict of interest with TransCanada, the company seeking to build the pipeline. A spokesman said it will be released early this year, and that could also further delay the project, depending on the findings.
All told, the remaining part of the regulatory process should take about four months, which would put a final decision around June. But the law doesn’t set a deadline for a decision after the 90-day clock runs out, so in theory the administration could delay its answer for any number of reasons for any amount of time.
“How long does it take to analyze public comments on the national interest determination? Is that another year?” Book asked.
Book was driving home the point that the time frame for a final answer on Keystone, which has been in the regulatory pipeline at the State Department since September 2008, is still uncertain despite Friday’s report indicating Obama has a basis to green-light it.
“I’m going to do everything I can to encourage a shorter time period,” Heitkamp said. “That’s important because if we don’t get an opportunity to construct in the summer and fall we lose a lot of time.”
Heitkamp is one of a handful of Democrats who support legislation approving the pipeline irrespective of Obama’s authority. She said Friday she wanted to talk to her colleagues before deciding whether or when to try to get a vote on that bill. She said she would also encourage the administration to shorten the 90-day period to 30 days.
Critics of the project are unhappy with Friday’s report and are already demanding more analysis, indicating a potential for further delay.
“I will not be satisfied with any analysis that does not accurately document what is really happening on the ground when it comes to the extraction, transport, refining, and waste disposal of dirty, filthy tar sands oil,” said Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
If the State Department does opt for more analysis, or allows more time for public comments, the timeline could easily get pushed from summer to autumn, putting it right up against the midterm elections, where Democrats’ control of the Senate is at risk.
TransCanada CEO Russ Girling said he hopes the remaining part of the process could be shortened.
“Whether this gets pushed further into fall and election season, I would hope not,” he said. “There is no reason for that.”
What We're Following See More »
"The Democratic National Committee filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit Friday against the Russian government, the Trump campaign and the WikiLeaks organization alleging a far-reaching conspiracy to disrupt the 2016 campaign and tilt the election to Donald Trump. The complaint, filed in federal district court in Manhattan, alleges that top Trump campaign officials conspired with the Russian government and its military spy agency to hurt Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and help Trump by hacking the computer networks of the Democratic Party and disseminating stolen material found there." The DNC is seeking "millions of dollars in compensation to offset damage it claims the party suffered from the hacks," and is arguing the cyberattack" undermined its ability to communicate with voters, collect donations and operate effectively as its employees faced personal harassment and, in some cases, death threats."
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency have fined Wells Fargo $1 billion dollars for convincing customers to buy insurance they did not need, and could not afford. "In October, the bank revealed that some mortgage borrowers were inappropriately charged for missing a deadline to lock in promised interest rates, even though the delays were Wells Fargo's fault." The bank has also apologized for . "charging as many as 570,000 clients for car insurance they didn't need," and found that about 20,000 of those customers "may have defaulted on their car loans and had their vehicles repossessed in part because of those unnecessary insurance costs."
"Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., plans to introduce legislation on Friday to decriminalize marijuana on the federal level, adding a high-profile advocate in the effort to decriminalize, legalize and normalize marijuana use in America." The bill would "remove marijuana from the list of scheduled substances," establish funding sources for businesses and research, and establish regulations akin to those for tobacco and alcohol. "'If smoking marijuana doesn't hurt anybody else, why shouldn't we allow people to do it and not make it criminal?' Schumer told HBO's Vice News in a Thursday interview previewing his bill."
Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee are considering "refusing to vote to discharge" President Trump's nominee for Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, in order pressure Sen. McConnell to take up a "sense-of-the-Senate resolution" that Special Counsel Mueller should be allowed to continue his investigation. If the Democratic Senators move forward with the plan, Republicans say McConnell "could simply trigger the so-called nuclear option" by declaring the move out-of-order, and bring Pompeo's nomination to the floor through a majority vote. The move is politically risky, as it would likely "heighten partisan tensions and play into President Trump’s arguments that Democrats are actively obstructing him."