WASHINGTON — The White House announced Tuesday that President Obama had no intention of bowing to a request from the company behind the Keystone XL oil pipeline to delay a decision on the project, saying he wanted to take action before his tenure ends.
The State Department is reviewing a request made Monday by TransCanada to pause its yearslong evaluation of the proposed 1,179-mile pipeline, which has become part of a broader debate over Obama’s environmental agenda.
Josh Earnest, White House press secretary, said Tuesday that “there’s reason to suspect that there may be politics at play” in TransCanada’s request. He strongly suggested that the review, which has been widely expected to result in a rejection of the pipeline as soon as this month, remained on track.
“Given how long it’s taken, it seems unusual to me to suggest that somehow it should be paused yet again,” Earnest said about the evaluation at the State Department, which reviews proposed cross-border projects that require a presidential permit.
The president, Earnest added, “would like to have this determination be completed before he leaves office.”
Environmental protection advocates say that Obama is poised to reject the pipeline project in large part to make a bold statement about his commitment to curb climate change in advance of a UN summit meeting in Paris. He will seek to broker an accord at the December gathering, committing every nation to enacting new policies to counter global warming.
The bid by TransCanada appears to have intensified pressure on Obama to weigh in on the project a month before the Paris meeting, where he hopes to cement an important piece of his environmental legacy.
Critics of the pipeline project denounced the request as an attempt to avert an expected rejection and push off a final decision until Obama has left office. They urged him to quickly kill the project once and for all.
“It’s really a headache they didn’t need going into Paris,” said Heather Zichal, a former senior climate adviser to Obama. “There’s a general sense among a lot of the groups that the president is trending toward killing this thing, and they expected a decision soon. This puts pressure back on the administration in a very real and meaningful way.”
The company’s request has reignited a fierce debate about the pipeline that had quieted in recent months. On one side are Republicans and oil industry executives who have championed the pipeline proposal as a boon for job creation and economic growth. On the other are environmental advocates who call the pipeline, which would carry 800,000 barrels a day of carbon-heavy petroleum from Canadian oil sands to the Gulf Coast, a dirty and dangerous project that would undermine Obama’s commitment to combating climate change.
TransCanada’s move raised legal questions for the Obama administration. The nightmare possibility, Zichal said, is that Obama would reject the pipeline only to face a lawsuit from TransCanada, then lose in court and inadvertently hand the company license to move forward with the project.
But former administration officials familiar with the review process said that was exceedingly unlikely. Neither the executive order process nor State Department procedures for review contain any provisions for suspending the evaluation, they said.
It would be hard for TransCanada to make a viable legal claim in an American court if the State Department refused to delay the review and rejected the project, the former officials said, since so much of the process is left to the president’s discretion. The former officials spoke on the condition of anonymity so they would not be identified in commenting on confidential work they did for the government.
“TransCanada has the ability to withdraw its permit, but it really doesn’t have any authority to suspend the federal process,” said Anthony Swift, the director of the Canada Project at the National Resources Defense Council. “Rejecting the project at this point would not expose the government to any legal risk.”
Davis Sheremata, a Trans-Canada spokesman, declined to comment on legal issues about its request, saying it would be inappropriate while the State Department was reviewing it.