An estimated crowd of 35-50,000 gathers near the Washington Monument on Feb 17, 2013 to protest the Keystone XL pipeline and support action on climate change. Image via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Obama administration announced Friday that it is once again delaying a decision to approve or reject the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline – a $5.4 billion project that would carry more than 800,000 barrels of oil  per day from Canadian oil sands to the Gulf Coast – likely until after the 2014 midterm elections.

“On April 18, 2014, the Department of State notified the eight federal agencies specified in Executive Order 13337 we will provide more time for the submission of their views on the proposed Keystone Pipeline Project,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement. “Agencies need additional time based on the uncertainty created by the on-going litigation in the Nebraska Supreme Court which could ultimately affect the pipeline route in that state.”

“In addition, during this time we will review and appropriately consider the unprecedented number of new public comments, approximately 2.5 million, received during the public comment period that closed on March 7, 2014,” the department added.

The Nebraska Supreme Court is expected to hear an appeal to a February ruling where a judge overturned a state law that allowed the pipeline’s path to go through the state. The court will not hear the case until September or October, making it unlikely that the Obama administration will make a decision on the project until after the midterms.

The decision to delay may be smart politics on the part of the White House because it insulates Obama from criticism from environmentalists in the Democratic base if he approves the pipeline, and it gives vulnerable Senate Democrats in red states the opportunity to distance themselves from the administration, a posture that will be politically beneficial to them in November.

In a statement following the announcement of the delay, Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana– who is up re-election in November – had strong words for the Obama administration, calling the decision “irresponsible, unnecessary and unacceptable.”

“I plan to use my power as chair of the Senate Energy Committee to take decisive action to get this pipeline permit approved,” Landrieu said.

Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota joined Landrieu in condemning the decision. “It’s absolutely ridiculous that this well over five year long process is continuing for an undetermined amount of time,” she said in a written statement Friday. “This most recent delay leaves everyone waiting in limbo – federal agencies, construction and energy workers and companies, state officials, and Canada.”

“It hurts all of us when no decisions are made,” she continued. “I’ll keep pressing the Administration for a clear timeframe for the pipeline, as I did just last week with 10 other Democratic Senators. But because of this latest delay tactic by the Administration, I’ll continue to seriously consider other available options for approval.”

Environmental organizations, by contrast, praised the State Department decision. Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the International Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement that the delay will “show what we already know: the more Americans learn about this project, the more they see that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is not in the national interest.’’

Similarly, the League of Conservation Voters called the announcement “great news,’’ arguing that the pipeline is not in America’s best interest.

“Not only does the pipeline lack a legal route, it clearly fails the President’s own climate test and threatens our waters while providing no benefits,” Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president, said in a statement, adding that the group believes “that President Obama and Secretary Kerry will find that this pipeline is not in America’s national interest.”