ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. Before the holidays, it seemed Congress had given a present to TransCanada. That's the company behind the proposed Keystone pipeline. The controversial project would carry oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and Congress gave the White House a 60-day deadline to approve or reject it.
As NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, that's not the kind of present TransCanada was hoping for.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Last year, environmentalists and ranchers in Nebraska succeeded in delaying the Keystone XL pipeline by arguing that it put a huge aquifer at risk. The company is still looking for a new route through Nebraska and it doesn't expect to have it pinned down until next fall.
So the company's James Millar says TransCanada doesn't know what to make of Congress's decision to try to force the Obama administration to put the project on the fast track.
JAMES MILLAR: We're heading into uncharted territory.
SHOGREN: Millar says it's just the latest consequence of just how politicized the Keystone pipeline has become.
MILLAR: We have essentially become the lightning rod for that broader debate around the consumption of fossil fuels.
SHOGREN: The massive amount of oil that would flow through the pipeline would come from tar sands in Canada. It takes a lot more energy to pull oil out of tar sands than it does to pump a well. That translates into extra greenhouse gas pollution.
That's why environmentalists made Keystone their prime target last year. Their protests help persuade the president to delay a decision on whether the pipeline is in the national interest.
In recent weeks, Republicans and some labor unions have turned the project into another kind of litmus test, one that measures the president's commitment to creating new jobs.
David Mallino, a lobbyist for the Laborers International Union of North America, attributes all the controversy around the project to its enormous size.
DAVID MALLINO: Seven billion dollars of private investment don't come along every day. They don't come along every year or every decade.
SHOGREN: So what's a president to do, especially when key parts of his political base are on opposite sides of the issue? People like Mallino are urging the White House to take advantage of the deadline and give the project a quick green light.
MALLINO: The pipeline itself is essential to putting thousands of our members back to work. I mean, it's not just a pipeline. It's a lifeline for those members. This is the right thing to do.
SHOGREN: But many environmentalists and legal scholars say the president can't approve it. It would be like granting a building permit when a construction company hasn't chosen a lot yet. The State Department had warned Republicans that their deadline would make it unable to issue a permit.
Patrick Parenteau is an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School.
PATRICK PARENTEAU: It would be essentially defenseless in a lawsuit if it tried to make a decision, having acknowledged that it doesn't have adequate information.
SHOGREN: Environmental groups say they would sue. Energy expert Amy Myers Jaffe is a director at Rice University's Baker Institute. She thinks the president will reject the pipeline this round, but that's probably not the end of Keystone. The Canadian oil is too valuable.
AMY MYERS JAFFE: The sequence of advance could easily be the president rejects this pipeline. We then have a crisis in the Middle East. We suddenly realize we're not having the oil from Canada when we could have and then people are angry about that.
SHOGREN: If the short deadline forces the Obama administration to reject Keystone on legal grounds, TransCanada would probably reapply. The company says it's committed to the project for the long haul, no matter what political and legal storms it has to weather.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.