Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton (AP file photo)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was indeed referring to the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline when she spoke in San Francisco last week, a State Department spokesman said Thursday.

When Clinton's comments before the Commonwealth Club were reported Thursday by the Journal Star, there was some question whether Clinton had been referring to the Keystone XL or another proposed pipeline, called the Alberta Clipper.

But in a daily press briefing Thursday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Clinton was, in fact, referring to the Keystone XL, which TransCanada hopes to have under construction across Nebraska as soon as next year.

"Her response reflected the status of the Keystone XL pipeline," Toner told reporters, adding that TransCanada's request "is still under deliberation."

When asked if Clinton meant to say that she was "inclined" to approve Keystone XL, Toner said, "She did."

Shortly thereafter, he added: "And her words obviously stand."

The proposed Keystone XL would carry crude oil nearly 2,000 miles from tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to Port Arthur, Texas, via Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma.

About as quickly as a transcript of Clinton's San Francisco comments circulated Wednesday, Nebraska's U.S. senators, Mike Johanns and Ben Nelson, as well as pipeline opposition groups at the state and national level, fired off requests for clarification.

Woven into their requests were suggestions that Clinton had jumped the gun on her department's review of TransCanada's proposal.

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."

One TransCanada pipeline, the Keystone, already is moving oil from Canada to Texas; in Nebraska, the Keystone was built farther east than the proposed Keystone XL, which would cross through the Sandhills and over the Ogallala Aquifer on its way to the Gulf Coast.

A second pipeline, the Enbridge Inc.'s Alberta Clipper, stretching from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wis., received U.S. approval last year. Oil began flowing through it earlier this month.

At Thursday's press briefing, Toner said:

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"There's three -- essentially, three projects: the Alberta Clipper, the Keystone and the Keystone XL. I believe she (Clinton) was asked about the Alberta Clipper. In her response, she reflected the status of the Keystone XL."

Toner said he didn't know how soon the State Department might take official action on Keystone XL.

"Given the Secretary's comments, 'inclined to approve'" asked a questioner, "do you have any sense now of what the timeline is for a final decision there?"

Toner: "I do not."

In letters Thursday to Clinton, Sens. Johanns and Nelson, as well as Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, cautioned Clinton to consider all sides before deciding whether to grant a permit allowing Keystone XL to cross the U.S-Canadian border.

Responding to questions last Friday after her San Francisco speech, Clinton remarked, "We're either going to be dependent on dirty oil from the Gulf or dirty oil from Canada. 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.

Opponents call the Keystone XL an ecological disaster waiting to happen; in Nebraska, concern has been expressed about the fragile topography of the Sandhills and possible contamination of the Ogallala aquifer.

Supporters call the Keystone XL a boon for U.S. jobs and energy production in North America.

Calgary-based TransCanada Corp. has said its pipelines pose no threat to the environment.

Clinton's San Francisco comments drew little attention at first, but generated opposition from members of Congress this week after environmental groups distributed her remarks.

Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or ahovey@journalstar.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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