Alex Pourbaix, a top TransCanada executive, forcefully disputed the key charge levelled by environmentalists against the pipeline, which would carry bitumen from Alberta's carbon-intensive oilsands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
"You could shut down oilsands production tomorrow, and it would have absolutely no measurable impact on climate change," he said at a roundtable in D.C. hosted by the National Association of Manufacturers.
“The oilsands and their greenhouse gas emissions impact have been overstated."
While environmental activists claim the oilsands are a "carbon bomb" that spew massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the Earth's atmosphere, Pourbaix said the emissions are in fact "globally immaterial."
The contrast between Tuesday's roundtable and Sunday's protest was striking, despite efforts by Keystone proponents to fight back in the face of a rejuvenated anti-pipeline campaign by U.S. environmentalists following President Barack Obama's recent calls for swift action on climate change.
A sea of placard-waving activists, citizens of all ages and Hollywood celebrities gleefully came together on the National Mall on Sunday to demand the pipeline's rejection. Two days later, a panel of sombre, suit-and-tie-clad business executives demanded precisely the opposite in a quiet conference room to a small group of assembled media.
Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said most Americans support the construction of the pipeline.
"If you want to know why Americans are frustrated with Washington, you only need to look at the Keystone project and the inexcusable bureaucracy and red tape," he said.
"In the State of the Union address and on the campaign trail, President Obama spoke a great deal about economic recovery and an 'all-of-the-above' energy policy. It's beyond time for those words to be met with action. In a struggling economy, we must not pass up clear opportunities to create jobs and jump-start growth."
The pipeline "has been held up for far too long," he added. "We need approval immediately."
Pourbaix said TransCanada "completely agrees" with Obama's recent proclamations on the need for quick action on climate change.
"But a complete transition away from carbon fuel is going to take decades.... the U.S. will be reliant on oil for decades," he said.
"So it's really a question of where the U.S. wants its oil to come from — does the U.S. want its oil from a friendly neighbour in Canada and domestic sources like the Bakken play, or does it want to continue to import higher-priced foreign oil from nations that do not support U.S. values? It is that simple."
Pourbaix and other stakeholders, including engineer Billy Rogers, all urged Obama to approve the pipeline, which would also help deliver a glut of domestic oil in the U.S. Midwest to market.
"Working on the Gulf Coast Project has afforded me a good income that allows me to support my family," said Rogers, who's currently working on the southern portion of the Keystone XL project.
"In addition, the construction of this project has had a significant impact in the local communities in which we work as the hundreds of crew members spend their money locally in restaurants, grocery stores, shops — everyone is benefiting."
Keystone XL has long been a flashpoint for the American environmental movement, but with the president now declaring climate change a legislative priority, the $7-billion project is being portrayed as an ever more dastardly villain. Environmentalists consider the pipeline a symbol of "dirty oil."
Pipeline proponents have been scrambling to get back on a firmer footing amid signals that Keystone XL is causing tensions in the Canada-U.S. relationship.
Pourbaix disputed suggestions on Tuesday that the pro-pipeline forces are losing the public relations war, saying they've got the facts on their side.
He also deflected questions about what TransCanada would do if the Obama administration were to exact something in exchange for Keystone approval, like a rumoured greenhouse gas emissions levy that would be imposed at the border and could raise much-needed revenue for the United States.
Marty Durbin, head of the American Petroleum Institute, said any such levy would be "misguided" and would hike the costs of doing business for countless firms on both sides of the border.
Pourbaix also scoffed at suggestions from prominent environmentalist Bill McKibben that if the pipeline is rejected, the oilsands are all but dead.
"You've seen the prime minister, our energy minister, our foreign affairs minister — all say the stated priority for Canada is to continue to develop this industry," he said. "It's incredibly naive for people to suggest that delaying or denying one pipeline would result in the cessation of this business in Canada."
Obama rejected TransCanada's previous permit application due to concerns about the impact on an ecologically sensitive area in Nebraska. But Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, previously a Keystone foe, recently gave his blessing to TransCanada's new route around a crucial state aquifer.
The U.S. State Department, tasked with making the ultimate decision on Keystone XL because it crosses an international border, is expected to rule on the pipeline's fate this spring.