WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama is running out of reasons to say no to Keystone XL, the proposed oil pipeline that's long been looming over his environmental legacy.
Five years after the pipeline's backers first asked the Obama administration for approval, the project remains in limbo, stuck in a complex regulatory process that has enabled Obama to put off what will inevitably be a politically explosive decision. But the release Friday of a long-awaited government report removes a major excuse for delay, ramping up pressure on the president to make a call.
The State Department's report raised no significant environmental objections to the pipeline, marking a victory for proponents, who argue the project will create jobs and strengthen America's energy security.
In this Dec. 3, 2012 file photo, crews work on construction of the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline near County Road 363 and County Road 357, east of Winona, Texas. In a move that disappointed environmental groups and cheered the oil industry, the Obama administration on Jan. 31, said it had no major environmental objections to the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada.
Environmentalists disagree and insist approval would fly in the face of Obama's vaunted promise to fight climate change, even as the report gives him political cover to approve it. They argue the report, which provides a detailed assessment of tar sands emissions, offers Obama more than enough justification to oppose the pipeline.
Obama is not tipping his hand. But the White House pushed back on the notion that the pipeline is now headed for speedy approval. Only after various U.S. agencies and the public have a chance to weigh the report and other data will a decision be made, said White House spokesman Matt Lehrich.
"The president has clearly stated that the project will be in the national interest only if it does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution," Lehrich said, echoing a declaration Obama made in a speech laying out his climate change plan.
A final decision isn't expected until this summer, at the earliest, meaning the verdict could potentially come in the run-up to November's midterm elections, in which energy issues are likely to be a factor in some key races. The decision might also coincide with the Obama administration's release of new emissions rules for existing power plants that are also politically contentious.
Because Keystone has become a proxy for the broader battle over energy vs. environment, Obama's decision will have an outsized impact on his environmental legacy. The issue has taken on a life of its own, trailing Obama seemingly wherever he goes.
Protesters, one who dresses as a polar bear, show up regularly outside the White House and at Obama events across the country to demonstrate against it. Both sides have run television ads urging Obama to take their side on the pipeline, which would carry oil from tar sands in western Canada 1,179 miles to a hub in Nebraska, where it would connect with existing pipelines to carry more than 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.
"Sometimes you don't get to choose the symbol of an issue - they get chosen for you, and there's no better example of that than Keystone," said Daniel J. Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress and a Keystone opponent. "His decision on this issue will symbolize his record on climate and energy for people on both sides of the debate."
If Obama gives Keystone the green light, environmental groups that are already upset with him for promoting domestic oil and gas drilling are sure to pile on. Moreover, it's unlikely to win him any accolades from Republicans. Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, said rather than give Obama credit for finally making the decision they wanted, Republicans will criticize him for taking so long.
Ironically for Obama, who has been seeking out opportunities to act unilaterally in the face of congressional gridlock, this is one decision the president may wish weren't up to him. Republicans seized on Obama's vow to use his "pen and phone" to take executive action this year as they urged him Friday to sign the pipeline's permit.
"Please pick up that pen you've been talking so much about and make this happen," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The White House has sought to dodge questions publicly about the pipeline by arguing the review process is housed at the State Department, which has jurisdiction because the pipeline would cross a U.S. border. But privately, administration officials concede that Obama will decide an issue of this magnitude.
Obama doesn't just face domestic pressure on the issue - Canada has been angered at the long delays of the project it needs to export its growing oil sands production. Obama meets with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a trilateral summit in Mexico in a few weeks.
Obama blocked the Keystone XL pipeline in January 2012, saying he did not have enough time for a fair review before a looming deadline forced on him by congressional Republicans. That delayed the choice for him until after his re-election.
Now that the review is complete, other government agencies have 90 days to comment. Then Secretary of State John Kerry makes a recommendation to Obama on whether the project is in the national interest, taking into account Obama's pledge that the effect on greenhouse gas emissions will be part of that equation.
The State Department report Friday said Keystone is unlikely to significantly impact oil sands extraction or the demand for heavy crude oil at U.S. refineries. Keystone opponents called the report flawed and argued it ignored evidence.