By Amanda Becker
DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who has long avoided a firm position on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, broke her silence on Tuesday and said she opposed it.
"I have a responsibility to you and other voters," Clinton, a former secretary of state, said at a town hall event in Iowa about TransCanada Corp's <TRP.TO> project to bring Canadian oil to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico via Nebraska.
A decision on Keystone that has been pending for seven years is important as it has become "a distraction from the important work we have to do to combat climate change," she said.
"Therefore, I oppose it," she said.
Environmental activists close to Clinton's campaign said the timing of her remarks was driven by her desire to make clear her opposition before the Oct. 13 Democratic debate.
Senator Bernie Sanders, a rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, opposes the pipeline and had urged her to take a position.
Sanders said in a statement he was glad Clinton "finally has made a decision and I welcome her opposition to the pipeline." It would be "absurd to encourage the extraction and transportation of some of the dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet," he said.
Clinton told the Des Moines Register editorial board she would release a plan in the next few days for a clean energy agreement among the United States, Canada and Mexico. She said the plan would create jobs.
UNIONS VS. ENVIRONMENTALISTS
Clinton has walked a fine line on supporting or opposing the pipeline, which puts two key Democratic constituencies at odds: organized labor and environmentalists. (For a graphics package on Keystone see http://graphics.thomsonreuters.com/15/keystone/index.html)
Many labor unions have pushed for approval of the pipeline, saying it would create thousands of construction jobs. Environmental activists have opposed it as delaying the transition to cleaner forms of energy and increasing emissions of greenhouse gases by speeding development of Canada's oil sands.
The State Department has said the pipeline would directly create 3,900 construction jobs for the year or two it was being built, and would create 35 full-time jobs once completed, along with 15 temporary contractor positions.
Jeb Bush, a Republican presidential candidate, tweeted that Clinton's stance on Keystone means she "favors environmental extremists over U.S. jobs."
Keystone watchers have been eager to learn Clinton's opinion about the pipeline since 2010. Then, as secretary of state, she said she was inclined to approve it. Asked repeatedly about the project since she entered the race in April, she has declined to state her stance.
Accused by some of being evasive out of political expediency, Clinton has said she refrained from taking a stand because did not want to "second-guess" her former boss, President Barack Obama.
Obama is expected to decide on Keystone in coming months. The White House declined to comment on Clinton's position.
The State Department, which will make a recommendation to Obama when it is finished with a review of the project, said there is no timeline for the completion of that review.
Canada's conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a strong proponent of the pipeline approval of which could breathe life into Alberta's oil fields. Harper said through a spokesman that Canada knows "the American people support the project."
TransCanada spokesman Davis Sheremata said the company remains focused on securing a permit for the project.
(Reporting by Amanda Becker in Des Moines and Timothy Gardner, Alana Wise, Jeff Mason and Valerie Volcovici in Washington, Jonathan Allen in New York and Nia Williams in Calgary; Writing by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Tim Ahmann and David Gregorio)