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U.S. lawmakers push bills to approve Keystone pipeline

By Timothy Gardner and Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON/LEMONT, Illinois (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers in both chambers of Congress said Friday they are moving forward with bills introduced this week to pluck the power of approving the Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Canada's oil sands to Texas, from the hands of the Obama administration.

Republican Representative Lee Terry from Nebraska introduced a bipartisan bill on Friday to approve TransCanada Corp's 800,000 barrels per day pipeline, which has been held up in the review process for more than four years.

Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee, said he expects the House will vote on the bill by the end of May.

The House measure is a companion to a bipartisan bill introduced on Thursday by Senators John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican, and Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat.

Hoeven said he believes the Senate bill currently has more than 50 votes of the 60 needed for passage in the 100-seat chamber, and said he expected the bill would easily get more supporters.

If lawmakers don't force Obama's hand early, the president is expected to make a decision around August or later, after the State Department finalizes an environmental assessment of the project.

The Keystone decision is one of the first big tests for Obama in his second term on energy and environmental issues.

Proponents say the decision will show whether Obama supports the North American energy boom and the jobs it creates.

Opponents from environmental groups say it will show whether Obama is sincere in his promises to take steps to curb climate change.

The pipeline will carry crude oil from Canada's oil sands, a type of oil production environmental groups argue could accelerate climate change.

About 20 people holding soggy protest signs stood in the rain outside the compound housing the research laboratory near Chicago where Obama gave his first energy speech of his second term on Friday.

The White House has steadfastly declined to comment on the approval process, but on Friday a spokesman sought to downplay the importance of the decision.

"There have been thousands of miles of pipelines that have been built while President Obama has been in office, and I think the point is, is that it hasn't necessarily had a significant impact one way or the other on addressing climate change," spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.

Earnest said there was "no question" that targeted investments to spur production of green energy or cut oil consumption would be more meaningful in the long term to cutting climate-changing greenhouse gases.

Obama on Friday proposed a $2 billion, 10-year research fund for cars and trucks that run on fuel other than gasoline.

"It's going to require some significant investments like the investments that we're talking about today for us to make progress on this," he said.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Peter Galloway and Leslie Adler)

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