Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was taken to task by senators who want her to clarify her comments about a pipeline from the oilsands in Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. ((Canadian Press))

Senators from both parties criticized U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for signalling likely support for a $7-billion pipeline to carry Canadian oil to refineries along the Gulf Coast.

Senators Mike Johanns and Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Jeff Merkley of Oregon called Clinton's comments premature and damaging to the integrity of the federal review process. The legislators cautioned Clinton to consider all sides before deciding whether to grant a permit allowing TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline to cross the U.S.-Canadian border.

Clinton stirred up controversy on both sides of the border last week after saying she was "inclined" to back the project, which would carry crude oil nearly 3,200 kilometres from the oilsands in Alberta to Port Arthur, Texas, via Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma.

"We're either going to be dependent on dirty oil from the Gulf or dirty oil from Canada," Clinton said after an Oct. 15 speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. "And until we can get our act together as a country and figure out that clean, renewable energy is in both our economic interests and the interests of our planet," the U.S. will remain dependent on oil, she said.

Clinton's remarks have become a flashpoint in the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, which opponents call an ecological disaster waiting to happen and supporters call a boon for U.S. jobs and energy production in North America.

The massive pipeline network — about five times the length of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline — is projected to move up to 1.1 million barrels of Canadian oil each day to U.S. refineries.

Calgary-based TransCanada Corp. has said its pipelines pose no threat to the environment. Oil began flowing through the Keystone pipeline in June.

Environmental groups, Indian tribes and others have rallied opposition to the pipeline in the wake of the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and a pipeline accident in Michigan in late July that spewed about four million litres of crude into the Kalamazoo River.

Most important decision

Jeremy Symons, senior vice-president of the National Wildlife Federation, called the project the most important environmental decision Clinton has faced in two years in office.

"Building a pipeline to import the dirtiest fuel on the planet from Alberta will create jobs in Canada but cost us clean-energy jobs here at home," he said.

The State Department has not completed its analysis, but Clinton said in San Francisco she is "inclined" to back the project once an environmental review is completed early next year.

Clinton described her role as "a very hard balancing act," adding: "Energy security requires that I look at all of the factors that we have to consider while we try to expedite as much as we can America's move toward clean, renewable energy."

Her remarks drew little attention at first, but generated opposition from members of Congress this week after environmental groups distributed her remarks.

Johanns, a Republican, and Nelson, a Democrat, said they were dismayed to read Clinton's remarks.

"Your comment that the State Department is inclined to grant approval for the pipeline appears to prejudge the outcome as a foregone conclusion," Johanns said Thursday in a letter to Clinton. "A premature decision of this magnitude is unfortunate."

Merkley, a Democrat, said he was "deeply concerned" that Clinton appeared to be determining the outcome of a major decision that he said could undermine the growth of clean-energy jobs in the United States.

"Importing more Canadian tar sands would make us more dependent on oil that has several times more pollution than conventional oil production," Merkley said.

Canada has become an energy powerhouse in recent years by separating petroleum from sand. Refining the oil creates more greenhouse gases than traditional crude, leading critics to argue it doesn't justify the fuel produced.

Robert Jones, a TransCanada Corp. executive overseeing the Keystone project, said it would be the best and safest pipeline ever built and create more than 100,000 jobs in the U.S. alone.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday that Clinton stands by her remarks and emphasized her call for cleaner energy sources.