Five years ago this week, a Canadian company proposed building a pipeline to send heavy crude oil from Alberta to refineries in the United States. The Keystone XL project has yet to get the green light. This summer, President Obama said he would not approve the Keystone pipeline if there was clear proof that it would, quote, "significantly exacerbate climate change."

Well, that didn't settle things at all. Some politicians in Washington and Canada are ramping up their pressure for approval and environmentalists are pushing hard against it. Here's NPR's Elizabeth Shogren.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Approval for the Keystone pipeline has been so slow because of concerns about climate change. The Canadian crude it will carry comes from what are called the tar sands and oil sands. This thick tarry crude has a higher greenhouse gas footprint than conventional petroleum because it takes so much energy to get it out of the ground and refine it so it can flow through a pipeline.

But a new measure being debated in the Senate would declare the Keystone XL in the national interest. Some Democrats are co-sponsors, like Senator Mark Begich from Alaska.

SENATOR MARK BEGICH: And why we would not build this pipeline to make sure this oil from our great partners is refined in the U.S. rather than focusing on oil in countries that do not like us makes no sense to me.

SHOGREN: The 807 mile pipeline would end in Nebraska, but it would hook up with pipelines that stretch to the Gulf Coast, where most of it would be refined. Most of the oil would be heavy crude from Alberta, Canada, but there would be an onramp for oil from the Bakken Formation in Montana and North Dakota. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota, defends Canada's oil production.

SENATOR HEIDI HEITKAMP: This is not some rogue country that doesn't have environmental standards.

SHOGREN: Oil producers in Alberta pay a tax for their carbon pollution and the companies are researching cleaner technologies. But this isn't good enough for some senators. Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer from California reminds her colleagues that according to the Environmental Protection Agency, Canadian tar sands can create 30 percent more greenhouse gases than conventional oil.

SENATOR BARBARA BOXER: Now, you'd have to be asleep for 10, 15 years to not believe that carbon pollution is dangerous to the planet.

SHOGREN: The thing is, earlier this year a State Department draft analysis concluded that Canada will develop its heavy crude with or without Keystone, and so the pipeline itself wouldn't have a big impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Energy analyst Jackie Forrest from IHS Cera agrees that rejecting Keystone won't reduce greenhouse gases.

She expects that if the Gulf Coast refineries don't get heavy crude from Canada, they'll use heavy crude from Venezuela or somewhere else.

JACKIE FORREST: And the greenhouse gas emissions from Venezuelan crude are about the same as from the Canadian oil sands. They're in the same range.

SHOGREN: These refineries have invested in expensive equipment to refine heavy crude. Forrest says it would make business sense for these refineries to shift to conventional lighter crudes. TransCanada is the company that wants to build the Keystone XL. Spokesman Shawn Howard says the reason they originally proposed it is oil companies wanted a replacement for Venezuelan crude, which they couldn't count on.

SHAWN HOWARD: This product is needed by those refineries to create the kinds of products that we all rely on every day.

SHOGREN: But environmentalists don't buy any of this. They're planning 150 protests in 45 states this coming Saturday. They say Keystone will increase production of this dirty oil by providing a way to get it to market, and that will increase greenhouse gas emissions. Actor Robert Redford makes the case in a new television ad from the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council.


ROBERT REDFORD: Tar sands oil is exactly the kind of dirty energy we can no longer afford. It may be great for oil companies, but it's killing our planet.

SHOGREN: Canadian Resources Minister Joe Oliver says Keystone XL is very important to Canada.

JOE OLIVER: Whenever I meet with U.S. officials, I raise it, and the prime minister raises it with the president when they meet, which they did most recently at the G8 meetings.

SHOGREN: He says the two countries could work together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while making North America energy independent. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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