After six long years and five weighty studies, the Keystone XL pipeline has lurched one step closer to approval, escaping major censure in a U.S. State Department environmental analysis released on Friday afternoon.
Despite so much ink and examination devoted to the project, however, the timeline remains as murky as ever, dependent as much on political expediency as economic and scientific merits.
The approval process now enters the National Interest Determination phase, beginning on Feb. 5 with a 30-day window for public comment and a 90-day period for input from at least eight federal agencies, including Defence, Justice, Homeland Security and the Environmental Protection Agency.
It will be up to Secretary of State John Kerry to scrutinize those contributions and make a recommendation to President Barack Obama.
On Friday, his department stressed that there is no set time restriction for Mr. Kerry's adjudication, meaning the Obama administration can withhold a verdict until it's most strategically advantageous.
For Mr. Kerry, the decision could prove agonizing. He spent much of his Senate career fighting for climate-change legislation and authored a book on environmentalism, This Moment on Earth, with his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry. Environmental groups contend the pipeline would spur an expansion of oil sands operations and a coinciding increase in greenhouse-gas pollution.
Mr. Kerry's personal convictions could clash with his party's needs come November. Democrats in several oil-producing states are facing tough campaigns as mid-term elections approach, and a Keystone approval could offer the bump they need to prevail.
With a quick approval, the pipeline could be completed within two years.