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The State Department faces Monday deadlines on Keystone XL pipeline decision

President Trump signs an executive order related to the oil pipeline industry at the White House on Jan. 24. (Shawn Thew/Pool via Bloomberg)
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The State Department faces two deadlines Monday  for deciding whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, but while a green light is widely expected, the company that would build the project said talks were still in progress.

President Trump  issued a presidential memorandum Jan. 24 ordering the secretary of state to “reach a final permitting determination” within 60 days of TransCanada’s submission of a new permit application. TransCanada, which tried in vain for seven years to win approval for its project during President Barack Obama’s administration, filed its new application Jan. 26.

In addition, TransCanada temporarily shelved its $15 billion arbitration case against the U.S. government Feb. 27 for a one-month period that also expires Monday. The filing alleges that the Obama administration’s refusal to grant a permit was “based on an arbitrary political calculation.”

“Monday is the deadline for a decision from the State Department,” TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha said in an email. “We are continuing to work with the administration on our presidential permit application.”

State Department approval is routinely needed for pipelines crossing international borders. But in late 2015, shortly before the international climate conference in Paris, Obama, citing national interests and the contribution the pipeline would make toward climate change, made the decision himself to reject Keystone XL.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive of ExxonMobil, has recused himself from making a decision about the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry up to 830,000 barrels of crude oil a day.  The deputy secretary would ordinarily issue approval, but that position is vacant because the administration hasn’t been able to agree on a nominee.

The Associated Press, which reported Thursday that a decision has already been made, said Tom Shannon, a career diplomat serving as undersecretary of state for political affairs, would sign off on the project.

In addition to requiring a presidential permit, TransCanada on Feb. 16 filed for approval from Nebraska’s Public Service Commission. That approval is needed for construction and also for the company to resort to using eminent domain when landowners refuse to let construction take place. TransCanada says that it has agreements covering 90 percent of the route in every one of the three states it will cross.

It also traverses Montana and South Dakota. In Nebraska, it would connect with other pipelines linked to oil refineries along the Texas gulf coast.

Five years ago, the Keystone XL project ran into objections from Nebraska landowners and environmentalists, many of them worried about potential damage to the state’s massive Ogallala water aquifer and fragile Sand Hills region. In response, the company moved the pipeline’s path farther east. But many environmentalists are seeking to file papers opposing the pipeline route.

On Tuesday night, Trump told an audience at a fundraiser that he had ordered one of his top economic advisers, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, to threaten that he would “terminate” a pipeline project if the developer didn’t drop what Trump described as a “$14 billion” lawsuit against the United States.

Trump didn’t specify which company was being told to drop its lawsuit, but no company other than TransCanada fits the description. Trump said the company did drop the lawsuit, adding, “Isn’t that easier?” He added, “Being president gives you great power.”

Environmental groups were protesting the expected project approval. Bill McKibben, a Middlebury College professor who played a prominent role in making the Keystone XL a national issue, issued a statement Thursday saying:  “When this fight began, the danger Keystone posed to the climate was clear. Since then we’ve had the three hottest years ever measured on our planet. That clearly means little to Donald Trump, but it means a lot to the millions of us who will continue to gather in resistance to an overheated future.”

Climate activists say that the Keystone XL pipeline would be especially damaging to the climate because it would carry thick, low-quality oil from Canada’s oil sands, or tar sands. Wringing that bitumen from Alberta’s vast forests involved tree cutting and a lot of energy, thus adding greenhouse-gas emissions to the extraction process.