WASHINGTON – The Canadian government is asking Barack Obama not to “rag the puck” on a Keystone XL decision. But to hear the U.S. administration tell it, the president doesn’t have the puck on his stick, isn’t anywhere near it, and won’t commit to touching it soon.
The U.S. is resisting pressure on multiple fronts to offer a date for a final decision on the pipeline — pressure that has grown with the regulatory process now entering a new phase.
It is facing demands from its Canadian counterparts, questions from U.S. media and attacks from political opponents.
None of which appears to have changed the basic answer: that when it comes to a timeline, there is no answer. The State Department is legally in charge of the file for at least another 90 days, and there’s no indication of when it might hand things over to the president.
Obama spokesman Jay Carney faced a dozen questions on the pipeline at the daily White House briefing Monday, with one query referring to the Canadian government starting to express its frustration.
The presidential spokesman, however, refused to be pegged down on a process he said isn’t even controlled by the White House. He even warned against political interference — a 2012 attempt by Republicans to force a decision within 60 days actually backfired, forcing a new regulatory process and additional delay, Carney noted.
“This is a process that’s run out of the State Department because it’s a pipeline that crosses an international boundary,” he said.
“The president’s view is we don’t interfere with that process. We let it play itself out.”
The White House response comes as the Canadian government seeks quick action following a report last week by the State Department that concludes that, under foreseeable market conditions, a new pipeline won’t single-handedly expand the Alberta oilsands.
Using the hockey metaphor of puck-ragging, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver urged the president not to stall for time. The Canadian government is pleading for a final call early enough to allow building during the 2014 construction season.
There will now be a 90-day national-interest determination study, during which various U.S. federal departments can raise objections. Then, based on what Secretary of State John Kerry decides, a final call might have to be made by the president.
But there’s no indication of when Kerry might make his decision.
In fact, a spokesman for Kerry offered only the tiniest hint when asked whether the department might actually make a recommendation to Obama while he’s still president.
Asked whether the decision would occur before 2017, Kerry spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki replied: “Yes.”
When one reporter suggested during Monday’s State Department briefing that the Keystone debate had taken longer than the Second World War, Psaki offered a cutting reply.
“I’m not sure there was a public comment option available during World War II, but that has been a factor for us,” she said. “As you know, there were more than 1.5 million comments that we’ve taken into account.”
Late Monday, the Washington Post reported that Republican lawmakers are considering using Keystone approval as a bargaining chip in exchange for their votes to increase the U.S. debt ceiling.
If so, that would mean the pipeline could be raised as a condition for keeping the U.S. from defaulting on its debt. The paper said the party would meet Tuesday to discuss whether Keystone, or Obamacare, might become its chosen issue.
It’s unclear, however, whether the party leadership has the stomach for a debt-ceiling standoff after a similar one last fall resulted in a government shutdown — which, from an economic standpoint, paled in comparison to the global market chaos that could result from a U.S. debt default.
Earlier Monday, one high-profile Republican did indeed describe Keystone as a fertile area for interparty co-operation.
The top Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, demanded approval soon and suggested the parties could work on that together.
“President Obama promised America a ‘year of action,’” McConnell said on the chamber floor.
“He says he wants to use his ‘pen and his phone’ to make it happen. Well, here’s what I say: use that pen and that phone of yours today for Keystone XL pipeline jobs. Here’s something both can parties agree on. Here’s your chance to work with Republicans on a bipartisan plan to create thousands of private-sector jobs today. Here’s your chance to show you’re not captive to the ideological extremists on the left.”
Obama certainly has been squeezed, on the one hand, by his own party’s base.
Project opponents promise to keep fighting in court, and in the political arena too. According to a Jan. 31 year-end filing with the Federal Election Commission, the NextGen Climate Action Super PAC, run by anti-Keystone billionaire Tom Steyer, spent $8.25 million last year on political causes.