Keystone Pipeline Tests President Obama on Jobs, Climate

PHOTO: President Barack Obama arrives to speak, March 22, 2012, at the TransCanada Stillwater pipe yard in Cushing, Okla.
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It's shaping up to be one of the trickiest decisions President Obama will have to make early in his second term: whether to approve construction of the 1,700-mile Keystone XL oil pipeline, stretching from Alberta, Canada, to Oklahoma.

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican, on Tuesday endorsed a revised pipeline route through his state, removing a final hurdle for the $5 billion project on the state level. Governors and congressional delegations from the four other states it crosses have already pressed for federal government approval.

The fate of the project now rests squarely with the Obama administration, which has the final say because it crosses an international boundary.

For the White House, the issue is a perfect storm of competing interests: the promise of thousands of new construction jobs and potential for cheaper energy, but with stiff opposition from environmental groups that say the pipeline would mean a toxic injection of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and heightened risk of destructive spills.

The State Department, which is finalizing an environmental review, is expected to present the president with its recommendations by the end of March. "I don't want to get ahead of that process," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday when asked about the decision.

Previous versions of the pipeline application, which were ultimately tabled over environmental concerns raised by Nebraska, appeared poised for federal approval. There was no public opposition to the plan from the Environmental Protection Agency or the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which had reviewed the plans.

President Obama even visited a portion of the Keystone pipeline in March 2012 to urge expedited construction of a southern portion that didn't cross through Nebraska. So far, the project has employed 4,000 workers, according to TransCanada, which operates the pipeline. When it's completed later this year, it will carry 700,000 barrels of oil per day from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast, the company said.

"We need to encourage domestic oil and natural gas production. We need to make sure that we have energy security and aren't just relying on Middle East sources," Obama said on a visit to remote Cushing, Okla.

"But there's a way of doing that and still making sure that the health and safety of the American people and folks in Nebraska are protected, and that's how I'll be measuring these recommendations when they come to me," he said at the time.

Now that Nebraska's political leaders have approved the northern portion of the pipeline plan, from Canada to Oklahoma, members of Congress are heaping pressure on Obama to follow suit.

"He and he alone stands in the way of tens of thousands of new jobs and energy security," said House Speaker John Boehner. "Every state along the proposed route supports this project, as does a bipartisan coalition in Congress and a majority of Americans."

TransCanada estimates the Keystone XL project will support 9,000 U.S. jobs through early 2015.

Fifty-three senators -- including nine Democrats -- are also joining the chorus, sending a letter to the White House on Wednesday requesting a meeting with Obama to discuss the issue and urging him to expedite approval.

"After more than four-and-a half-years and an exhaustive review process, it's time to come together, Republicans and Democrats, and do what is clearly in our national interest," said Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota.

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