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President Barack Obama speaks in Washington on Nov. 14, 2013.CHARLES DHARAPAK/The Associated Press

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Another year gone and still no decision on Keystone XL.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper insists he won't take "no for an answer."

How about "no answer" for an answer? It could happen, again.

President Barack Obama is in no hurry to decide on the controversial scheme to funnel upwards of one million barrels a day of thick, carbon-laden Alberta oil sands crude across half-a-dozen U.S. states to the huge refineries next to Gulf coast ports in Texas and Louisiana. More than five years after TransCanada proposed the pipeline, the political and energy supply landscape is vastly different.

Mr. Obama already punted once on Keystone XL, before his bid for a second White House term in 2012. Doing so defused a political issue that could have cost him crucial support from voters for whom the global warming and environmental issues were key ballot issues.

While Keystone XL advocates and opponents both expected the final State Department environmental assessment to be issued first in the spring, then last summer, then by the end of 2013, those deadlines have all slipped away. (State is involved because the pipeline crosses an international border.)

Another election looms – the 2014 midterms – and while Mr. Obama never need face the voters again, there are key races where Keystone XL matters. For instance, Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, has a formidable array of Republican opponents who would like nothing better than if Mr. Obama sided with the greens and blocked Keystone XL. But there are other places and races where backing big oil interests could hurt Democrat fortunes.

With the U.S. so awash in oil that the industry is asking Mr. Obama to lift the ban on exporting domestic production – a ban that dates back decades – the imperatives that drove Keystone XL half a decade ago have eased.

Keystone XL has become an icon, a measure of Mr. Obama's credibility on his pledge not to befoul the planet for future generations.

Both sides expect (again) the coming year to be the one when a decision is finally made in the White House, even if they differ sharply on what it will be.

"I have confidence that reason will prevail in Washington in 2014 on many fronts," said Gordon Giffin, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada who now heads the Public Policy and International department of McKenna Long & Aldridge in Washington. Mr. Giffin predicted that "based on the merits, the pipeline will receive a presidential permit in the spring of next year."

Not so fast, argue Keystone XL opponents who regard it as a nightmare that will unlock the vast Alberta reserves to development.

"The American people are becoming more and more aware that the U.S. should not enable the growth of some of the most carbon-intensive and high-impact oil on the planet," said Danielle Droitsch, Director of the Canada Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would clearly enable that growth and fail President Obama's climate test."

Some Keystone advocates believe Mr. Obama's dithering is to garner votes rather than the result of careful deliberation. "The American public clearly believes that President Obama is delaying his decision on Keystone XL due to politics rather than 'legitimate concerns,'" said Matt Dempsey, of Oil Sands Fact Check, a lobby group backing the pipeline. "It's time for President Obama to put politics aside and side with the American people who need the jobs and energy security Keystone XL would bring."

On the other side of the bitter divide, rejecting Keystone XL is about long-term security and a new era of energy jobs. "In 2014 the world will embrace clean energy, we will turn away from extreme fuels, and we will never look back," said Michael Marx, of the Sierra Club's Beyond Oil campaign. "My New Year's wish is that 2014 is the year that the Harper government comes to its senses about climate disruption. I wish to see the Canadian government, and the U.S. government and world for that matter, wake up to their responsibility for the health and safety of all Canadians, all First Nations communities, and all communities along the proposed pipeline and rail routes."

Some hope Mr. Obama will send Mr. Harper a message he has to accept. "I expect President Obama to live up to his word of protecting our homes and water which means one thing and one thing only, deny Keystone XL and send a clear message to Canada to clean up the tar sands, said Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska.

Meanwhile, everyone has a Plan B. For TransCanada, which will open the southern leg of Keystone XL later this month, building the pipeline as far as North Dakota where the huge Bakken oil field is flourishing, would neatly avoid the trans-border permit required to cross the 49th parallel.

Then the last few hundred kilometres from a pipeline terminal in Montana to the Alberta oil sands could be bridged with huge oil trains shuttling back and forth in a rail bridge that requires no presidential permit.

Paul Koring reports from The Globe's Washington bureau.

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