The Canadian government demanded an answer immediately on the long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline. It has now received a reply from the United States government that amounts to: Maybe next year.
The project is now paralyzed for an indefinite period, with the U.S. administration Friday announcing another delay in a process already beset by political and legal challenges.
The announcement made it clear that Canadian pipeline backers will not get the answer they wanted in time for the summer construction season, pushing completion of the project until 2015 — at best.
The State Department said it needs more time to prepare its recommendation to the president because the pipeline route is mired in uncertainty. A legal dispute is underway in Nebraska over the route and it is unlikely to be resolved before next year.
Eight federal agencies were informed Friday that they will be granted additional time to weigh into the process, while details of the route are still being clarified.
Administration officials denied claims the decision was motivated by politics. That accusation was levelled explicitly by its Republican opponents at home, and in language that was only marginally more diplomatic by the Harper government in Ottawa.
The Obama administration insisted the delay was about analyzing the right pipeline route — and not at all about flinging a political hot potato beyond November's congressional elections.
"That pipeline route is central to the environmental analysis," a State Department official told reporters Friday.
"We are prudently recognizing that the facts agencies need to assess and analyze could change... We have decided that the prudent thing is to allow more time."
The southern leg of the Alberta-to-Texas pipeline is already completed, but the northern stretch that crosses the Canada-U.S. border requires a presidential permit. With that process delayed for years, rail shipments of Alberta crude have skyrocketed, threatening a broader trickle-down effect throughout the transportation system and on Canada's resource-based economy.
Speculation had been rampant about whether the Obama administration might try to punt the politically sensitive decision until after this year's midterms. That's because even if the project has solid support from the general public, it has sharply divided Barack Obama's Democratic party.
On one side, there are big-money environmentalist donors. On the other side, red-state conservative Democrats risk losing their seats and leaving the Republicans with control of both congressional chambers.
The Harper government appears unconvinced the decision was apolitical.
"We are disappointed that politics continue to delay a decision on Keystone XL," Harper spokesman Jason MacDonald said in a statement.
"This project will create tens of thousands of jobs on both sides of the border, will enhance the energy security of North America, has strong public support, and the U.S. State Department has, on multiple occasions, acknowledged it will be environmentally sound."