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Senators Step Up Pipeline Pressure on White House

The contentious debate over a pipeline that would import crude oil from Canada is moving from the White House to Capitol Hill.

Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Dick Lugar plans to announce a bill Wednesday that would press the Obama administration to make a faster decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, a spokeswoman for the Indiana Republican told Roll Call.

The House has already passed a similar bill, and Lugar’s action adds to the mounting pressure on President Barack Obama to issue a permit for the pipeline. Proponents say the project could create tens of thousands of jobs and reduce the nation’s dependency on oil from the Middle East.

Yet Obama also faces pressure from environmentalists concerned about the pollution associated with extracting oil from oil sands and the pipeline’s potential to cut through environmentally sensitive regions of the United States.

After three years of deliberation, the State Department announced earlier this month that it would need until 2013 to make a final decision. The delay would allow officials to assess alternative pipeline routes that avoid Nebraska’s environmentally sensitive Sand Hills region.

Supporters of the pipeline accused the administration of playing politics with the project by delaying the decision until after next year’s presidential election.

“It seems unlikely to be a coincidence that delay of Keystone XL comes at a time when the White House was under tremendous political pressure,” Lugar said in a statement following the State Department announcement.

Details of Lugar’s bill have not yet been released, but it is likely to resemble a House bill sponsored by Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.). That bill, which passed in July with the help of 47 Democrats, directs the president to expedite his decision.

Terry has urged the Senate to take up the bill, but his spokesman Charles Isom said the Congressman has not been working directly with Lugar.

The Senate bill could go a step further than the House version and issue a deadline for the State Department to make a decision.

A Lugar staffer said no Democrats have agreed so far to support the Senator’s plans to pressure Obama.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is expected to join Lugar at Wednesday’s news conference, as are Republican Sens. John Hoeven (N.D.), David Vitter (La.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).

Lugar’s bill would join a crowded legislative agenda, and it’s unclear whether it would reach the Senate floor by year’s end. Yet it brings Congress to the center of an advocacy and lobbying fight that has so far been focused on the White House.

“We’ll definitely support [Lugar’s bill],” said Sabrina Fang, a spokeswoman for the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the nation’s oil and gas companies. “Both sides have been lobbying for their respective sides. We will continue to [push for] a speedy approval of the pipeline.”

The oil trade group has spent nearly $6 million on lobbying this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

TransCanada, the Canadian company building the pipeline, also plans to play a role once Lugar’s bill materializes. The company spent more than $1 million on lobbying this year.

“We continue to have discussions with lawmakers,” Shawn Howard, a spokesman for the company, said in an interview. “There are many Members of Congress both in the House and the Senate who have been expressing their concern about the time it has taken so far.”

Opponents of the pipeline say there are also plenty of lawmakers who are worried about the pipeline’s effect on the environment. Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s international program, said the protests and grass-roots pressure directed at the White House in recent months could also shift to Capitol Hill.

“I think it was really that public voice raising concerns about the pipeline that [administration officials] rightly listened to,” she said. “The grass-roots involvement will absolutely continue. People are watching this pipeline very closely.”

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