As opponents testify in Washington, Harper calls proposed Alberta tarsands pipeline a "no brainer"

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But in the aftermath of failed climate change legislation on Capitol Hill last year, dozens of disparate American environmental groups have come together to launch a devastating public relations campaign against the pipeline, framing Keystone XL as emblematic of a battle between fossil fuels and renewable sources of energy.

More than 1,000 activists were arrested in protests outside the White House this summer, including actresses Daryl Hannah and Margot Kidder.

It's a state of affairs that has caught TransCanada officials off-guard.

"I did not expect this to become a lightning rod of the debate between fossil fuels and alternative fuels,'' CEO Russ Girling said at a news conference held before the State Department hearing.

"TransCanada won approval of a similar pipeline three years ago with little opposition.''

Girling denied suggestions that the approval process was tainted because the company's chief lobbyist in D.C., Paul Elliott, has a friendly relationship with some State Department officials, particularly a woman working at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa who cheered on the lobbyist's efforts to win approval for Keystone XL in a batch of emails released this week.

Elliott, who was a campaign worker for Hillary Clinton during the secretary of state's failed presidential bid in 2008, was in the crowd at Friday's hearing but didn't speak to the media.

"It is the latest tactic by those opposed to our project to discredit the regulatory process, the regulators, our company and our employees,'' Girling said.

The proposed pipeline would carry millions of barrels of oilsands crude a week through six U.S. states to refineries in Texas. Girling said approval of the pipeline would enhance American energy security and create 20,000 jobs as TransCanada adheres to strict safety standards that exceed U.S. requirements.

Environmentalists, however, say TransCanada has exaggerated the job creation number. They have described the pipeline as a disaster waiting to happen, given it traverses environmentally fragile areas of the U.S. Midwest.

"I don't want tarsands chemicals in our water,'' Nebraska rancher Sue Luebbe told the hearing as she struggled to contain her emotions.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to speculate on Friday if he thought the opposition could derail the project.

"This decision is an absolute no-brainer,'' Harper told reporters in Regina where he was helping to announce plans to build a pasta processing facility.

"There is no better safer and more environmentally sound source of energy than Canada,'' he said.

The State Department hearing came as another demonstration was underway just a block away _ the Occupy Wall Street protesters had gathered in Freedom Plaza, and many of them dropped into the nearby proceedings to lend their support.

The State Department is making the decision on the project because the pipeline crosses the Canada-U.S. border.

In its environmental assessment of the project, the department said the pipelines poses no significant risks. Now State Department officials are determining whether Keystone XL is in the U.S. national interest.

Thirty-six Democrats in the House of Representatives sent a letter Friday to Clinton seeking assurances that the oilsands crude that would be shipped via the pipeline to the Gulf Coast will benefit Americans, not overseas customers.

"We urge you ensure that the approval of this project, if it occurs, requires the oil and refined product the pipeline transports to be sold in the United States,'' they wrote.

"Anything less would certainly not be in the national interest.''

The Obama administration is faced with a difficult choice as the debate becomes increasingly ideological: to side with those who insist the pipeline will create jobs as the U.S. struggles to recover from a devastating recession, or with the environmentalists within the president's liberal base who have threatened to stay home in November 2012 if he fails to block Keystone XL.

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