The clock is ticking on the Keystone XL pipeline.
Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday unveiled a clock on the panel's website that is counting - down to the second - how long President Obama has to make a decision on the proposed Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline.
Two days before Christmas, the president reluctantly agreed to do so within 60 days, or by Feb. 21. As of Wednesday, he was 12 days into the agreement, with 48 days to go. If he does nothing, the agreement calls for the contentious project to be approved.
The political struggle over the fate of the pipeline has been mounting, with a leading energy trade group separately outlining plans Wednesday for a public lobbying campaign on behalf of the project.
"It will indeed be an election issue," American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Jack Gerard said. "I think it would be a huge mistake on the part of the president to deny construction of the pipeline."
Proponents, who include some major labor unions, say the $7 billion project would create jobs, raise tax revenue and reduce the nation's dependence on overseas oil. But opponents, led by environmental activist groups, warn Keystone poses a threat to such sensitive areas as Nebraska's Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies water to much of the Midwest, while promoting the development of "dirty" tar shale oil from Canada.
"There is naturally going to be significant pressure to get moving on the project," said Matt Letourneau, spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Energy Institute. "It's not surprising to see this type of pressure on the White House."
The Keystone XL pipeline has been waiting three years for approval. The State Department seemed poised to sign off on the project just a few months ago, but the administration in November announced plans to effectively delay any decision until after the 2012 election.
The delay was seen as in part a way to avoid angering elements of Mr. Obama's base - unions and environmentalists - before November's vote.
But congressional Republicans continued fighting for a more timely decision, forcing Mr. Obama to agree to a 60-day timeline as one price for winning an extension of the president's payroll tax cut last month.
The Keystone XL pipeline, being built by the Canadian energy giant TransCanada, would transport tar sands oil nearly 1,700 miles from Alberta, Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast.
TransCanada officials have said the pipeline would create an estimated 20,000 American jobs, 13,000 in construction - for electricians, heavy equipment operators, mechanics, pipefitters, and welders - and another 7,000 in manufacturing, although pipeline critics say those numbers are overstated and many of the jobs will be temporary.
It would also create some 118,000 spin-off jobs at local businesses, according to a study by the Perryman Group. This could translate into $20.9 billion in total spending over the life of the project.
Keystone backers also say it will strengthen the nation's energy security by purchasing oil from Canada rather than unstable or hostile nations in the Middle East and Latin America.
The API's Mr. Gerard called the Keystone XL pipeline a "triple win" at the API's "State of American Energy" conference with reporters Wednesday.
"It is an answer to the No. 1 issue of job creation, an answer to the challenge of deficit and debt reduction, and also to our challenges around national security," he said.
The energy group on Wednesday launched a national initiative, "Vote 4 Energy," to promote the Keystone XL pipeline. The campaign "will help Americans understand what's at stake and why energy issues should figure prominently in their voting decisions," Mr. Gerard said.
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