Hispanic group: Latinos back Keystone XL pipeline

Supporters of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline are now billing it as a top political issue for Hispanic voters — the latest bid to spur the administration’s approval of the project.

On Tuesday, the American Petroleum Institute joined with the Hispanic Leadership Fund to call for President Barack Obama to issue a cross-border permit allowing construction of the pipeline that would connect oil sands projects in Alberta, Canada with refineries along the Gulf Coast.

“At a time like now where our country is hurting economically… this is something that is important to our members from a jobs perspective,” said Mario Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund. “Even in the states where the pipeline doesn’t pass through, a number of studies have shown the number of jobs that would be created are significant.”

“Latinos have been especially hurt by the economic downturn,” Lopez added, noting that the unemployment rate among Hispanics is hovering about 1 to 2 points higher than the national average.

Marty Durbin, API’s executive vice president, added that the project would put thousands of skilled workers to work almost immediately.

This latest push comes as nearly four dozen members of the House and Senate today will begin work on a conference committee tasked with ironing out differences between transportation bills passed by the two chambers. One of the major issues the committee will be tackling is language in the House-passed transportation bill — but not in the Senate version — that would require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve Keystone XL within 30 days or else the project would be automatically deemed approved.

The Obama administration has threatened to veto bills with a similar mandate.

Last week, TransCanada Corp., filed a new application for a permit to build the $7 billion pipeline, after revising an earlier planned route to avoid environmentally sensitive regions of Nebraska. It could be months before Nebraska regulators finish reviewing the proposed path.

Even with the route change, the pipeline would still pass through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma on its path to southeast Texas.

Environmentalists have opposed the project because they say it would expand the market for a particularly heavy form of crude that is extracted from oil sands fields in Canada. Critics argue that extracting bitumen from those fields and processing it for transport through pipelines requires more energy than other conventional oil production and has a much higher environmental footprint.

Landowners along the proposed route also have sounded the alarm about potential leaks and the risks to local groundwater supplies.

Supporters note that TransCanada has agreed to conditions designed to keep the pipeline operating safely. They also point to the potential jobs that would be created during construction of the project.

The pipeline has been a political challenge for Obama, who last year postponed a decision on the project, citing concerns about the route through Nebraska and the need for more environmental reviews.

Congressional Republicans later pushed back with legislation forcing Obama to make a decision on the project. That measure was signed into law as part of a payroll tax extension late last year. In response, Obama rejected TransCanada’s permit application, saying more reviews were necessary but couldn’t be completed by the GOP’s timetable.