"The president will make a decision before the end of his administration on the Keystone pipeline, but when exactly that will be I don't know at this point," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Pipeline planner TransCanada submitted its application to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline across the U.S.-Canadian border more than six years ago. In a change of course, the company said it was now asking the U.S. State Department, tasked with vetting the pipeline, to pause the review process because of route considerations in Nebraska.
In September, the company said it was filing an application with the Nebraska Public Service Commission for pipeline construction after withdrawing from a lawsuit filed by Nebraska landowners challenging the company's claim to eminent domain for land intended for the pipeline.
"We are asking [the State Department] to pause its review of Keystone XL based on the fact that we have applied to the Nebraska Public Service Commission for approval of its preferred route in the state," TransCanada President and Chief Executive Officer Russ Girling said in a statement. "I note that when the status of the Nebraska pipeline route was challenged last year, the State Department found it appropriate to suspend its review until that dispute was resolved."
TransCanada's decision is an about-face in the long dispute over a pipeline that's become a scapegoat for the debate over energy policies in North America. Supporters on both sides of the border have argued it would be a net benefit for North America, though opponents have said it's largely designated as an export pipeline.
The request for a delay may be a reflection of the changing market landscape in North America. Stephen Harper, whose Conservative Party was defeated in October's national election, made Keystone XL one of his top priorities during his administration. He's argued the project is among the better alternatives, both economically and environmentally, to transport oil. Justin Trudeau, ushered to the Canadian leadership with the election, has said he supports Canada's energy-based economy, but would take a different position than Harper.
The industry, meanwhile, has already reacted to market trends in North America. Royal Dutch Shell said last week an uncertain market and the lack of infrastructure needed to move Canadian oil to the global market means it's time to scrap its Carmon Creek project in Alberta, Canada, and take a $2 billion write down for the loss.
TransCanada, for its part, said falling oil prices are having a "profound impact" on its customers. In September, the company said it would cut about 20 percent of its top-level executive positions and last week announced it would cut director-level positions by 20 percent.
The company reported earnings for the third quarter of $336 million, a 2 percent decline year-on-year.