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Pipe ready to become part of the Keystone XL pipeline near Ripley, Okla.

Sue Ogrocki/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Despite Prime Minister Stephen Harper's description of TransCanada Corp.'s proposed Keystone XL pipeline as a "no brainer", oil patch sentiment is far less certain on the chances of the project's success.

At an RBC global energy and power conference in New York this week, executives from a trio of companies participating in an oil sands panel publicly pegged odds of approval for the contentious TransCanada Corp. project above 70 per cent.

Washington has studied Keystone XL for more than 4-1/2 years now, and oil patch optimism has ebbed and flowed with U.S. political cycles. The timeline for a decision keeps slipping.

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Following President Barack Obama's re-election in November, the industry had expected a decision in a matter of months and optimism abounded. The president had rejected the project months before and invited TransCanada to reapply, essentially punting a decision until after the campaign. Meanwhile, the company started building the southern section between Cushing, Oklahoma, and the Gulf Coast refining region.

RBC analyst Greg Pardy offered a few highlights on the matter from a conference discussion involving Canadian Oil Sands Ltd., Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. and MEG Energy Corp.

Canadian Oil Sands CEO Marcel Coutu gave Keystone XL a seven out of 10 chance of approval, and said he expects a decision by late 2013. MEG vice-president John Rogers said logic dictates the project should get the nod, but he would only give a 65 per cent to 70 per cent chance of a go-ahead.

Doug Proll, CNRL vice-president, did not say what odds he was laying on approval, but said it is likely the decision could slip into 2014 from the current official expectation of 2013. The company has much skin in the game, having committed to 120,000 barrels a day of capacity.

Of course, the industry is looking to Keystone XL and other export pipeline proposals as a way to bypass already oversupplied traditional markets in the U.S. Midwest and expose the growing crude supply to higher prices. The companies are crafting contingency plans as well, adding to volumes moving by train and looking at less-advanced pipeline proposals to Eastern Canada and elsewhere.

(Jeffrey Jones is a Globe and Mail Business Reporter.)

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