Skip to main content
john ibbitson

U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement to reporters at the White House in Washington, Dec. 28, 2012.JONATHAN ERNST/Reuters

Politics Insider delivers premium analysis and access to Canada's policymakers and politicians. Visit the Politics Insider homepage for insight available only to subscribers.

President Barack Obama is unlikely to announce whether he is approving or rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline until at least the autumn, further delaying the most crucial decision affecting Canada-U.S. relations in decades.

Canadian industry and political observers have been keenly awaiting a yes or no on the proposed pipeline – which would ship bitumen from the Alberta oil sands to American refineries – since Mr. Obama was re-elected last November.

Initial hopes of a winter or spring 2013 decision gave way to a more realistic expectation that final word would not arrive until this summer.

But a look at the timeline, buttressed by several off-the-record conversations, suggests that a decision should not be expected until September at the very earliest. Most likely, word will not come down until well after the leaves are off the trees in the nation's capital.

Here is the timeline:

We are about half way through the 45-day comment period that must follow the draft Environmental Impact Statement that was released in early March by the State Department.

Once that comment period is complete, later this month, officials will draw up a final Environmental Impact Statement on the pipeline, which will take a couple of weeks to prepare, at least.

That statement will then be subject to a 90-day review period. The review period could be extended, if the State Department believes further input is needed. So, at best, the review period will extend into August.

After the review is completed, officials will draw up a National Interest Determination on whether the pipeline should proceed. That document, which must be signed by Secretary of State John Kerry, is then submitted to other departments, who have 15 days to register objections, taking us into late August or early September.

The final document, with any objections included, will then be submitted to the President for his decision.

So even if there are no delays, the relevant documents are not expected to land on Mr. Obama's desk until after Labour Day – and past experience suggests that, with Keystone, there are always delays.

This means that the White House is unlikely to announce its decision on Keystone until late September at the very earliest. A safer bet is that it will come in October or November.

The Harper government isn't waiting. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver on Tuesday emphatically endorsed a proposed new pipeline that would ship bitumen east from the oil sands to Quebec and New Brunswick, which could open up new markets both in Eastern Canada and overseas.

But getting Alberta oil to American refineries remains crucially important to the future of the oil sands. A yes from Mr. Obama would generate jobs, revenues and a huge sigh of relief from Ottawa.

A no would send Canada-U.S. relations into a deep freeze the likes of which have not been seen since the Diefenbaker government refused to station nuclear missiles on Canadian soil. That was in the early 1960s.

The American government is obliged to follow its own rules, and does not appear eager to rush a decision in any case. The President is under intense pressure from environmental groups to veto Keystone. Whatever he decides, that decision will be deeply unpopular in some quarters.

Leaves off the trees? We could be shovelling snow before we know, one way or another.

John Ibbitson is the chief political writer in Ottawa.

Interact with The Globe