TORONTO — The Obama administration’s announcement to put off a decision on whether to approve an oil pipeline to the U.S. Gulf Coast has gone over badly in Canada, where it is being viewed as a signal that the country must diversify its oil exports away from the United States and toward Asia.

Thursday’s announcement by the State Department to delay a decision on TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline alarmed Canadian officials who rely on the United States for 97 percent of Canada’s energy exports.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford said it’s a clear reminder about the strategic importance of diversifying Canada’s export markets. The State Department said it will require a review of a new section that would avoid environmentally sensitive areas of Nebraska, which is expected to be completed in early 2013.

Federal Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver said Friday in an interview from Japan that the decision is disappointing and noted that China is “very eager” to get oil from Canada, which has the world’s third largest oil reserves. Oliver spent the last week meeting with high-level Chinese officials about Canada’s energy industry.

Calgary-based Enbridge has proposed a Northern Gateway pipeline to the Pacific coast that would allow Canada to diversify its energy exports to China. The Northern Gateway Project would connect Alberta’s oil sands oil to a port in Kitimat, British Columbia, where tankers could transport it to Asian customers.

“It is a strategic objective of our country to diversify our customer base,” Oliver said. “We need the infrastructure to move the resources to where they are wanted.”