The pipeline, which requires a federal permit from the State Department because it crosses an international border, has been under review for more than three years.
In early November, the administration delayed making a national interest determination on the pipeline on the grounds that it needed to avoid crossing sensitive terrain in Nebraska’s Sandhills region. At the time, officials predicted that the process of rerouting the pipeline and the subsequent environmental review would extend the permitting process into early 2013.
But language inserted in last month’s payroll tax extension forces President Obama to make a decision by Feb. 21. Administration officials have said that the truncated timeline makes it difficult to complete a review of whether the pipeline is in the national interest, given the fact TransCanada has yet to outline an alternate route.
The Obama administration is conducting an analysis of how it can reject the controversial 1,700-mile pipeline proposed by the Canadian firm TransCanada without foreclosing the possibility of it altogether, according to individuals familiar with the process who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.
Its supporters say the project would create jobs and provide the United States with a stable energy supply from Canada; its foes say it will accelerate climate change by transporting energy-intensive crude oil that could spill and harm fragile habitat.
Environmentalists such as Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council, said she and others are “very confident the White House is going to reject the pipeline given the timeline that they have.”
Even the project’s most determined backers, such as the Business Roundtable’s president and chief executive, John Engler, say they recognize that Obama could chafe at having his hand forced.
“I think the timing is just unfortunate, because we’re close to an election,” Engler said. “I mean, I think if we were five days after an election, it would be a no-brainer to be approved.”
TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha said the company received guidance just last month from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality on what areas in the Sandhills were off-limits, adding that the firm will be able to have the new route’s outline ready between June and September.
In the days before passage of the payroll tax extension last month, State Department officials warned that they would have to reject a permit if they lacked adequate time for a review.