WASHINGTON, DC, April 18, 2014 (ENS) – To consider 2.5 million public comments and a route tied up in legal battles, the U.S. State Department today extended the time allowed for agency consultations on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The proposed pipeline would cross the Canada-U.S. border carrying heavy oil from the Alberta tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

The initial 90 day comment and consultation period for eight federal agencies, which was supposed to end in early May, will now continue for an unspecified length of time.

The State Department said today, “Agencies need additional time based on the uncertainty created by the on-going litigation in the Nebraska Supreme Court which could ultimately affect the pipeline route in that state.”

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Members of a coalition of 30 citizens groups hold boxes of anti-pipeline messages outside the Senate Office Building, Feb. 14, 2014 (Photo by 350.org)

“In addition, during this time we will review and appropriately consider the unprecedented number of new public comments, approximately 2.5 million, received during the public comment period that closed on March 7, 2014,” the State Department said.

Proposed by the Canadian corporation TransCanada, the Keystone XL Pipeline would be 1,179-mile (1,897 km), 36-inch-diameter oil pipeline beginning in Hardisty, Alberta, and extending south to Steele City, Nebraska. There it would meet an existing pipeline to carry tarry diluted bitumen to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

The $5.4 billion pipeline would transport 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil daily, an increase of 45 percent over current import levels. If the pipeline is approved, Canada could increase tar sands oil production levels 300 percent by 2030.

Because it would cross the border, a Presidential Permit declaring the pipeline to be in the national interest is required. The U.S. State Department is tasked with evaluating the risks and benefits and making a recommendation to the President.

In February a Nebraska judge declared unconstitutional a state law that had allowed Governor Dave Heineman to approve the route the Keystone XL pipeline would take through Nebraska.

Pipeline opponents and the three landowners who brought the case declared victory, but the state of Nebraska is appealing the decision, saying the route most recently approved stands while the appeal is being considered.

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Loading pipes for Keystone southern leg onto a truck for transport (Framegrab from video courtesy TransCanada)

“The agency consultation process is not starting over,” the State Department said today. “The process is ongoing, and the Department and relevant agencies are actively continuing their work in assessing the Permit application.”

“The Permit process will conclude once factors that have a significant impact on determining the national interest of the proposed project have been evaluated and appropriately reflected in the decision documents,” said the statement. “The Department will give the agencies sufficient time to submit their views.”

Russ Girling, TransCanada’s president and CEO, said, “We are extremely disappointed and frustrated with yet another delay. American men and women will miss out on another construction season where they could have worked to build Keystone XL and provided for their families. We feel for them.”

“We are also disappointed the United States will continue to rely on suspect and aggressive foreign leaders for the eight to nine million barrels of oil that is imported every day. A stable, secure supply of oil from Canada and from the U.S. makes better sense and I am sure a majority of Americans agree,” said Girling.

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Pipeline crew lays a portion of the southern leg of the Keystone pipeline (Framegrab from video courtesy TransCanada)

“North American oil production is up dramatically and will continue to rise. That means without Keystone more oil will be shipped by rail and by barge. As the State Department concluded in its recent Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement not approving Keystone XL will lead to higher GHGs through other oil transportation options and greater public risk,” said Girling. “Not building Keystone XL is a lose, lose, lose scenario any way you look at it.”

Reaction to the announcement reflects a split in the Democratic Party over the Keystone XL pipeline.

U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp of South Dakota, who co-led an April 10 call on the President to announce his decision by May 31, was annoyed by the delay.

“Once again, we’re hearing more delays and more uncertainty over the Keystone XL pipeline,” said Heitkamp. “It’s absolutely ridiculous that this well over five-year-long process is continuing for an undetermined amount of time. This most recent delay leaves everyone waiting in limbo – federal agencies, construction and energy workers and companies, state officials, and Canada. It hurts all of us when no decisions are made.”

“I’ll keep pressing the administration for a clear timeframe for the pipeline,” said Heitkamp, but she threatened to “seriously consider other available options for approval.”

The Republican-led House of Representatives has voted to approve the pipeline, and with 10 Democratic senators in favor of approval in the narrowly divided Senate led by Democrats, legislation to approve might pass. The final decision would still rest with President Barack Obama.

Senator Barbara Boxer of California who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said, “Given the unprecedented number of comments from the public on the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, and the legal uncertainties due to lawsuits in Nebraska, the State Department was entirely correct to delay a decision on the pipeline.”

“I was pleased to learn today that Secretary Kerry has agreed to take into account the public health impacts of the tar sands oil when he considers whether the pipeline is in the national interest. But I still do not have a clear cut answer on whether there will be a separate health impacts study, which is clearly in the public interest,” said Boxer, who has repeatedly called for such a study.

“I reminded the State Department today that joining the call for an independent health impacts study are National Nurses United, the American Public Health Association, and the National Association of County and City Health Officials,” Boxer said.

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Anti-Keystone XL demonstration in front of the White House, Aug. 20, 2011 (Photo by Chesapeake Climate)

Environmentalists view the delay as a victory for those hundreds of thousands who have staged years of anti-Keystone XL demonstrations in front of the White House and across the country, concerned about the climate impacts of burning tar sands oil.

All Risk, No Reward Coalition spokesperson Rachel Wolf said, “This is a huge victory for climate champions and communities from Alberta down to Nebraska and the Gulf. Every day without Keystone XL is a day that we keep high-carbon tar sands in the ground.”

“The State Department’s announcement to postpone a final decision on Keystone XL pending further certainty on the Nebraska route confirms, yet again, that this project not permit-able,” said Wolf. “This export pipeline fails the climate test, fails the jobs test, and doesn’t even have a legal route.”

In January, the State Department and contractor Environmental Resources Management completed the final Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL pipeline.

In February, the State Department Inspector General cleared the State Department and ERM of allegations of conflict of interest in evaluating the pipeline.

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