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Despite delay, Keystone project remains divisive

Supporters, foes wrangle before November votes

WASHINGTON — Democrats may be hoping the Obama administration’s latest delay to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline takes the politically fraught issue off the table for the midterm elections, but the issue shows no signs of disappearing.

An indefinite extension of the government’s review of the contentious oil pipeline, announced late Friday by the State Department, almost certainly pushes a final decision past the November elections, keeping the project in a politically expedient holding pattern.

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But the extension is doing little to quell posturing over the project, which has taken on a life of its own as climate change activists battle with energy advocates from both parties.

Republicans jumped at the chance to paint Democrats as powerless to rein in their party’s president. Keystone opponents were split. Some praised the delay and others chided President Obama for not vetoing the project outright.

‘‘It reinforces how ineffective, powerless, and without influence senators like Mary Landrieu, Mark Begich, Mark Warner, and Kay Hagan are,’’ said Brad Dayspring of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, naming vulnerable Democrats up for reelection in November.

For Democrats competing in Republican-leaning states, winning those votes will require putting distance between themselves and Obama. The State Department’s announcement that a decision on Keystone XL will not come any time soon offers a prime opportunity to bash the leader of their party.

‘‘I am frankly appalled at the continued foot-dragging by this administration on the Keystone project,’’ said Begich, Democrat of Alaska, adding that the delay ‘‘means we’ll miss another construction season, and another opportunity to create thousands of jobs.’’

‘I am frankly appalled at the continued foot-dragging by this administration.’

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On the opposite end of the spectrum, some environmentalists were miffed, contending Obama should muster the courage to veto the project rather than hold out the prospect he will approve the pipeline, which would carry oil from western Canada’s tar sands to Texas Gulf Coast refineries.

‘‘While we’re at it, the State Department should also request that physics delay heat-trapping operations for a while, and that El Niño scheduled for later this spring be pushed back to after the midterms,’’ said Bill McKibben of the group 350 Action, dripping with sarcasm.

Word of the latest in a string of delays to Keystone XL came Friday as Washington was winding down for Easter. The State Department said it will give federal agencies more time to weigh in on the matter but declined to say how much.

Officials said the decision will have to wait for the dust to settle in Nebraska, where a judge overturned a state law in February that allowed the pipeline’s path through the state.

Nebraska’s Supreme Court is not expected to hear an appeal of that ruling until September or October, and there could be more legal maneuvering after it does so. Obama will almost surely have until after the elections to make the final call about whether the pipeline should be built.

Rejecting the pipeline before the election would put Democrats like Landrieu and Begich in a tough spot, while approving it risks rankling Obama’s allies and donors in the environmental community — some of whom are already pledging to spend huge sums this year helping candidates who have publicly opposed the pipeline.

‘‘There’s no winning decision here,’’ said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. ‘‘In a situation where you’re between a rock and a hard place, it’s better to postpone and then let everybody complain.’’

For Landrieu, whose competitive race in Louisiana will help determine whether Democrats retain control of the Senate, the delay comes at a particularly sensitive moment. Landrieu recently took the helm of the Senate Energy Committee, and has been using her new position to argue that she offers voters in oil-dependent Louisiana the best chance to influence energy policies — including approval of Keystone XL.

‘‘Turns out that Landrieu isn’t influential at all,’’ Dayspring quipped after the latest delay was announced Friday.

The pipeline project has become a proxy for a larger battle pitting efforts to combat climate change against efforts to promote American energy. The 1,179-mile pipeline, which has been waiting for more than five years for approval, would travel through Montana and South Dakota to a hub in Nebraska, where it would connect with existing pipelines to carry some 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day to Texas refineries.

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