WASHINGTON – In a major victory for American Indian activists, the Obama administration has decided to postpone a decision on whether to allow the Keystone XL pipeline to flow from Canada until after the 2012 presidential election.
Administration officials said that the extra time is needed to allow for study for a new route for the pipeline. Indians, environmentalists, and others have been especially concerned that it would cross Indian country lands and likely cause pollution to the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska.
The State Department said in a statement released the afternoon of Nov. 10 that the Obama administration will reassess the proposed route through Nebraska. "Given the concentration of concerns regarding the environmental sensitivities of the current proposed route through the Sand Hills area of Nebraska, the Department had determined it needs to undertake an in-depth assessment of potential alternative routes in Nebraska," the statement said.
"Because this permit decision could affect the health and safety of the American people as well as the environment, and because a number of concerns have been raised through a public process, we should take the time to ensure that all questions are properly addressed and all the potential impacts are properly understood," President Barack Obama said in his own statement.
Some lawmakers were reportedly given a heads up that a decision will not be made until at least 2013.
The extra time could save Obama from losing votes in the November 2012 election from environmentalists and other progressives who feared he would support the original plan to extend the existing Keystone pipeline (which currently brings tar sands oil to Oklahoma and Illinois) through the U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico. Still, the decision may anger those who believe the pipeline is a good way to create immediate jobs and spur economic growth. Speaker of the House John Boehner was quick to take that route, saying in a statement: "More than 20,000 new American jobs have just been sacrificed in the name of political expediency. By punting on this project, the President has made clear that campaign politics are driving U.S. policy decisions—at the expense of American jobs."
The postponement comes less than a week after 12,000 activists, including Native Americans, encircled the White House, linking arms to signify their unity against the project. Besides environmental concerns, Indians say they have not been properly consulted, and have argued that treaties could be broken. They reacted with cautious optimism on Thursday.
“I have come here to be part of this peaceful circle of people to shine a light on President Obama to be visionary and deny a corporate plan whose promise of destruction of our lands is certain,” Lakota activist Debra White Plume said in a speech at the protest. “President Obama will be an Earth Warrior, standing in the way of something bad coming toward the people, or he will step aside for TransCanada to foul our water, land, and health for generations to come.”
The State Department’s decision represented an about-face from an August decision by the agency, which granted initial approval to TransCanada, the developer of the project, to move forward in constructing the 1,711 mile, $7 billion pipeline.
Indians widely protested that decision, and some tribal leaders attended State Department sessions to explain their concerns in the ensuing
months. Questions have also arisen about the relationships between some agency officials and developers of the project.
In early November, Obama himself commented in an interview with a Nebraska television station that he knew there were public health concerns, which he said he would consider in making a final decision. “…[Y]ou know when somebody gets sick that’s a cost that the society has to bear as well,” the president said in the interview. “So these are all things that you have to take a look at when you make these decisions.”