The Syncrude tar sands mine north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, is seen in November. Alberta's tar sands would supply the oil for the prospective Keystone XL pipeline.
The oil industry and environmentalists are fighting over the Keystone XL pipeline, and in this election year, President Obama is caught in the middle.
The industry says the pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast, would create jobs. Environmentalists worry it will lead to more pollution. Obama has until next month to make a decision, and that has both sides lobbying heavily.
The 1,700-mile pipeline would bring oil from Alberta's tar sands down through the middle of the U.S. to Gulf Coast refineries. When the company behind the pipeline, TransCanada, proposed it, executives had no idea it would be so hotly debated.
"The Keystone XL pipeline will be a presidential election issue and will likely play out much broader," observed Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, at a recent industry event in Washington, D.C.
Gerard predicts the pipeline issue will even show up in local political races. As if to ensure that, his group started running a TV ad this week in Midwestern states. It encourages people to call or write Obama, and tell him to approve the pipeline.
Ads from opponents, concerned about pollution associated with tar sands oil, are more difficult to find. They're generally low-budget affairs, like one on YouTube featuring hand puppets. It includes a portrayal of old men around a boardroom table plotting to get the pipeline approved by hiring "the best PR company money can buy."
Just a few months back, it looked like the Obama administration had found a way to put off the sticky election-year issues surrounding the pipeline. The State Department said it would spend more time exploring alternative routes for the pipeline in Nebraska. Many there had expressed concern that it would travel through the environmentally sensitive Sandhills region.
That would have effectively delayed consideration of the project until after the 2012 election. But then Congress passed legislation forcing a decision by Feb. 21.
Now the lobbying campaigns are in full swing. Oklahoma's Republican Gov. Mary Fallin sent a letter to Obama on Tuesday. "I'm encouraging the president to consider signing the Keystone Pipeline agreement so that we can create economic stimulus for our national economy and put Americans back to work," Fallin tells NPR.
Job Seekers: Estimates for how many jobs the pipeline would create vary widely, from 5,000 (based on a State Department study) to 500,000 (from a few individuals and news reports that do not provide a source). But the project would put at least a few thousand people to work, in construction, manufacturing and supply, as well as restaurant and hotel workers along the route.
The Environment: Environmentalists say the pipeline will encourage American oil consumption and contribute to climate change, but pipeline supporters argue that the impact will be negligible compared with overall climate change factors. Some opponents are also concerned about the environmental effect of extracting oil from the pipeline's source, tar sands in Alberta, Canada. In Nebraska, the original route of the pipeline went through an ecologically sensitive region called the Sandhills and over a large aquifer, but TransCanada has since agreed to revise the route after protests from residents.
Landowners: Eminent domain allows TransCanada to claim (and purchase) land in each state the pipeline would run through — Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. Although private landowners would be compensated for their land, if they did not wish to sell, a court battle could be their only recourse.
U.S. Security: Proponents of the pipeline argue that it will reduce the United States' dependency on foreign oil, increasing domestic security. However, the pipeline will bring only about 700,000 barrels of oil to Gulf of Mexico refineries each day — a fraction of the 19 million barrels the U.S. consumes each day.
— Natalie Jones
Pipeline supporters focus on the benefits of getting oil from a friendly neighbor like Canada, and on the thousands of workers who would get jobs during construction.
"In my opinion, the only thing standing in the way between more energy production in America, and job growth and more economic stimulus in our nation, is the president," Fallin says.
But environmentalists say there are more important issues to consider.
"This is not the right step forward if we want to be building a clean energy future and a clean energy economy in the United States," says Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's International Program.
Casey-Lefkowitz says the pipeline would allow tar sands oil production in Canada to expand. She opposes that because she says it releases more pollution than traditional oil production.
"We've been encouraging our members to call the president and thank him for already standing up to big oil on this pipeline, and say that, essentially, we have his back, we know that he's going to do the right thing," Casey-Lefkowitz says. "We know that he's going to do the right thing and reject the Keystone XL pipeline."
Obama has not said which way he's leaning. As both sides wait for a decision, the lobbying campaign in the U.S. is growing more intense.