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The company behind the controversial Keystone XL pipeline wants the United States to put off a decision about the project's fate. That decision is already seven years in the making, but TransCanada is now asking that a contested route through Nebraska be sorted out first. NPR's Jeff Brady reports.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Rumors have circulated for weeks that the Obama administration was getting close to a public announcement on the Keystone XL pipeline. People on both sides of the border predicted the administration would reject it. TransCanada president and CEO Russ Girling was asked during a conference call whether he asked for the delay because a rejection was imminent.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So that you were expecting Obama to refuse the project?
RUSS GIRLING: No.
BRADY: Girling was pressed further - is his plan to stall until a new president takes office, perhaps a Republican who supports the pipeline? Without much detail, again he said no.
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GIRLING: We have tried to stay out of the politics of this situation.
BRADY: But politics has not returned the favor. The pipeline has become a symbol for environmental activists who want the country to move away from fossil fuels toward renewable forms of energy. Jane Kleeb with the group Bold Nebraska wants the Obama administration to ignore TransCanada's request for a timeout and to reject the pipeline now.
JANE KLEEB: The president has everything he needs to really honor what we have asked for and what farmers and ranchers and tribal nations have asked for on day one, which is to protect our land and water and to show us some climate leadership.
BRADY: A big reason environmentalists don't like the Keystone XL is because of the oil it would transport. Much of it would come from Alberta's oil sands, which have to be mined. Then the gunky mixture has to be processed before it's usable. That emits more pollution than traditional methods of oil production. White House spokesman Josh Earnest says the State Department is reviewing TransCanada's letter to determine what the company is requesting and the motivation behind it. He says President Obama intends to make a decision before leaving office.
JOSH EARNEST: There's no doubt that this debate has been heavily influenced by politics, and the president is doing his best to try to shield the actual process that will consider the merits of the project from those politics. And it's very difficult to do, given the amount of politics that are being played here.
BRADY: Politics across the border in Canada may play a role too. Outgoing conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper is about to be replaced tomorrow with Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau.
Kevin Book is managing director at the research firm ClearView Energy Partners. He says if the Obama administration were to reject the pipeline that would have really upset Harper.
KEVIN BOOK: On the other hand, what we're hearing out of the Trudeau camp is that they might be willing to forgive or at least not get quite as angry.
BRADY: Book says there is another factor at play here - oil prices are down by almost half from a year ago. Canada's oil sands crude is relatively expensive to produce. So for now, Book says, the pressure to build the pipeline may have waned a bit.
BOOK: This question isn't over just because Keystone's on pause. Right now the whole oil market is on pause. But when the oil market whips back up, questions of moving Western Canada oil into the U.S. Gulf of Mexico are going to come back.
BRADY: Book says the vast reserves of oil in western Canada have been there for millions of years and they aren't going anywhere. With one of the largest consumers next-door, the temptation to develop Alberta's oil sands and transport it to the U.S. by a pipeline won't go away soon. Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.