WASHINGTON — In a politically explosive decision, President Barack Obama on Wednesday rejected plans for a massive oil pipeline through the heart of the United States, ruling there was not enough time for a fair review before a looming deadline forced on him by Republicans. His move did not kill the project but could delay a tough choice for him until after the November elections.
Right away, the implications rippled across the political spectrum, stirred up the presidential campaign and even hardened feelings with Canada, a trusted U.S. ally and neighbor. For a U.S. electorate eager for work, the pipeline has become the very symbol of job creation for Republicans, but Obama says the environment and public safety must still be weighed too.
The plan by Calgary-based TransCanada Corp. would carry tar sands oil from western Canada across a 1,700-mile pipeline across six U.S. states to Texas refineries.
Obama was already on record as saying no, for now, until his government could review an alternative route that avoided environmentally sensitive areas of Nebraska — a route that still has not been proposed, as the White House emphasizes. But Obama had to take a stand again by Feb. 21 at the latest as part of an unrelated tax deal he cut with Republicans.
This time, the project would go forward unless Obama himself declared it was not in the national interest. The president did just that, reviving intense reaction.
"This announcement is not a judgment on the merits of the pipeline, but the arbitrary nature of a deadline that prevented the State Department from gathering the information necessary to approve the project and protect the American people," Obama said in a written statement. "I'm disappointed that Republicans in Congress forced this decision."
Republicans responded unsparingly.
"President Obama is destroying tens of thousands of American jobs and shipping American energy security to the Chinese. There's really just no other way to put it. The president is selling out American jobs for politics," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said. Insisting that the pipeline would help the economy, he declared: "This is not the end of the fight," signaling that Republicans might try again to force a decision.
The State Department said the decision was made "without prejudice," meaning TransCanada can submit a new application once a new route is established. Russ Girling, TransCanada's president and chief executive officer, said the company plans to do exactly that. If approved, the pipeline could begin operation as soon as 2014, Girling said.
It did not take long for the Republicans seeking Obama's job to slam him.
Newt Gingrich, campaigning for the GOP presidential nomination in South Carolina, called Obama's decision "stunningly stupid," adding: "What Obama has done is kill jobs, weaken American security and drive Canada into the arms of China out of just sheer stupidity."
Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney said the decision was "as shocking as it is revealing. It shows a president who once again has put politics ahead of sound policy."
Project supporters say U.S. rejection of the pipeline would not stop it from being built. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said TransCanada could pursue an alternative route through Canada to the West Coast, where oil could be shipped to China and other Asian markets.