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As predicted, the Obama administration will delay its decision on whether to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

During a briefing, the administration justified the delay by saying it is studying alternate routes for the proposed $7 billion, 1,700-mile pipeline. But the underlying motivation is no doubt to put off a decision until after the 2012 election has passed — thereby preventing a major electoral push-back from either the oil industry or frustrated environmentalists.

The delay, particularly under the guise of considering alternate routes that would avoid Nebraska’s Sand Hills region and the Ogallala aquifer, will also serve to temper the escalating pressure and criticisms surrounding the debate: The State Department’s reputation has already been damaged after disclosed emails revealed a pro-industry bias, and the department is currently being investigated to determine whether officials followed proper procedures in determining the project’s costs and benefits.

The announcement also minimizes the likelihood that Obama will ever have to make a conclusive decision on Keystone XL. The permit process has already dragged on for more than three years, and some close to the debate have indicated the possibility that the pipeline companies might scrap the plan altogether if they have to wait much longer. Additionally, several groups that have opposed the current pipeline proposal have said they would support a less environmentally detrimental route; so what appears to be avoiding the issue might actually be a way of solving it.

The administration’s move to delay a Keystone XL decision does not offer an immediate victory to either the industry or anti-pipeline activists, but it does mark a smart political move that will most likely yield positive results for Obama, if no one else.

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