Opponents of the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline are hailing President Barack Obama's decision Wednesday to accept the State Department's recommendation against a permit for the project. But Sen. Mike Johanns says the president appears to be making a political decision.
In his statement accepting the State Department's recommendation, Obama called the Feb. 21 deadline for a decision included by Congressional Republicans in December's payroll tax holiday extension "rushed and arbitrary." Opponents and supporters of the pipeline proposal reacted strongly.
Anti-pipeline activist Jane Kleeb of the group Bold Nebraska applauded the decision:. "Nebraskans are very proud of President Barack Obama's decision for denying the Keystone XL pipeline," Kleeb said. "It was a bold decision, it was the right decision, and it's something that our family farmers and ranchers are going to be celebrating for generations to come."
On the other hand, Sen. Mike Johanns, who opposed the earlier proposed route through the Sandhills but supports the pipeline, criticized the president. "The president's decision today is extremely disappointing. This has been a pipeline process that's been going on now for about three years. This process was ready to come to a conclusion," Johanns said. "There's only one piece of it that's ever been in dispute and that's the piece that went through the Sandhills or was proposed to be. That now has been changed. The company's agree to reroute the pipeline. So there isn't any reason why a permit can't be granted for the rest of the pipeline to start being built."
Reacting to public outcry, pipeline company TransCanada agreed last November to propose a route that avoided the Sandhills. Nebraska officials were expected to approve or disapprove that that alternative route this summer or fall.
In a conference call explaining the State Department's recommendation to reject the application, Assistant Secretary Kerri-Ann Jones cited the situation in Nebraska. "It's my understanding that the applicant has just recently begun to suggest some corridors where alternate routes may be possible," Jones said. "But there has not been much detail work done which would require a lot of analysis based on the topography and the endangered species and the relative water issues. So much of that information would take quite a while to get. It would take beyond the 60-day timeline," she added, referring to the 60 days Congress gave the president in December to approve or disapprove the pipeline permit.
Kleeb, who opposed both the original route and the pipeline as a whole, said Nebraska's Department of Environmental Quality should stop any work on an alternative route. "I think the DEQ should not spend one more dime of taxpayer money. I think that the pipeline permit has been denied," she said. "And if TransCanada is going to try to spin our state government saying otherwise, we need to be sure they get a clear memo from the State Department saying this process is over."
But the State Department said its decision does not preclude any subsequent permit application. TransCanada said it will reapply and will continue to work with DEQ on an alternative route. And Johanns said Congress might bypass the president. "Now the question is whether he's put this back to square one, or whether with a legislative initiative this could be pulled off of where it's at now." Johanns said, adding "There's just no answer to that today."