WASHINGTON - More than half the Senate on Wednesday urged quick approval of TransCanada's controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, ramping up pressure on President Barack Obama just days after he promised in his inaugural address to respond vigorously to the threat of climate change.
A letter signed by 53 senators said Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman's approval of a revised route through his state puts the long-delayed project squarely in the president's hands.
"We urge you to choose jobs, economic development and American energy security," the letter said, adding that the pipeline "has gone through the most exhaustive environmental scrutiny of any pipeline" in U.S. history.
"There is no reason to deny or further delay this long-studied project," said the letter, which was initiated by Senators John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and signed by 44 Republicans and nine Democrats. Another Democrat, Jon Tester of Montana, supports the pipeline but did not sign the letter.
Calgary-based TransCanada is seeking approval for a $5.3-billion pipeline that would carry crude from Alberta's oilsands and U.S. shale formations to Steele City, Neb.
That pipeline would link up with another $2.3-billion conduit line to Texas refineries, which is 40 per cent complete. That segment does not require a U.S. federal permit.
The two projects were originally part of one big pipeline proposal that the Obama administration rejected last year. TransCanada opted to cut it up into two projects while the Nebraska issues were sorted out.
The southern leg should be in service later this year, while TransCanada (TSX:TRP) expects the northern portion to start up in late 2014 or early 2015.
At a news conference Wednesday, senators said the pipeline should be a key part of Obama's "all of the above" energy policy, in which he has expressed support for a range of energy sources from oil and natural gas to wind, solar and coal.
The Obama administration has twice thwarted the 2,700-kilometre (1,700 mile) pipeline, which TransCanada first proposed in late 2008. The State Department delayed the project in late 2011 after environmental groups and others raised concerns about a proposed route through environmentally sensitive land in Nebraska.
Under pressure from congressional Republicans to make a decision on the pipeline, Obama blocked it in January 2012, saying his concerns about the Nebraska route had not been resolved. TransCanada submitted a new application last spring.
The State Department said Tuesday it does not expect to complete a review of the project before the end of March. The State Department has jurisdiction over the pipeline because it crosses a U.S. border.
The renewed focus on the pipeline comes as Obama pledged during his inaugural address to respond to the threat of global warming. Environmental groups and some Democratic lawmakers argue that approving the pipeline would directly contradict that promise.
"If we are going to get serious about climate change, opening the spigot to a pipeline that will export up to 830,000 barrels of the dirtiest oil on the planet to foreign markets stands as a bad idea," said Anthony Swift of the Natural Resources Defence Council.
The pipeline would carry heavy oil derived from oilsands sands in Western Canada. The heat-intensive process uses more energy than traditional oil, producing more heat-trapping gases that contribute to global warming.
Environmental groups have been putting pressue on Obama to reject the pipeline, citing the oil's high "carbon footprint." They also worry about a possible spill.
At a news conference Wednesday, senators from both parties said the Nebraska decision leaves Obama with no other choice but to approve the pipeline, which would carry up to 800,000 barrels of oil a day from the oilsands to refineries in Houston and other Texas ports. The pipeline also would travel though Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma.
"No more excuses. It's time to put people to work," Baucus said.
"Back home, we call this a no-brainer," added Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
Hoeven, of North Dakota, said the oilsands oil will be produced whether or not the U.S. approves the project. "Our choice is, the oil comes to us or it's going to China," he said.
Nebraska's approval of the pipeline means all six states along the proposed route now support the project, said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Majorities in the House and Senate also have endorsed the pipeline. National polls repeatedly show a majority of Americans back the project.
Boehner said he recognizes the political pressure Obama faces from environmental groups and other opponents, but said "with our energy security at stake and many jobs in limbo, he should find a way to say yes."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that the State Department was reviewing the project and he did not want to "get ahead of that process."
Once that review is completed, "we'll obviously address that issue," Carney said.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State nominee John Kerry said he plans to divest holdings in dozens of companies in his family's vast financial portfolio to avoid conflicts of interest if he is confirmed by the Senate.
Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said he would not take part in any decisions that could affect the companies he has holdings in until those investments are sold off. Among the investments are holdings in two Canadian companies, Suncor and Cenovus Energy Inc., both of which have publicly supported the Keystone XL pipeline. Kerry's investments are in family trusts.
— With files from The Canadian Press