By Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Environmental opponents of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline aimed to deluge the White House and Congress with phone calls on Friday, slamming a Republican plan to speed approval of the project in exchange for extending a payroll tax cut.
"Red alert - call the White House and tell them not to back down to big oil on Keystone," environmental activist Bill McKibben said in a tweet. McKibben mobilized some 10,000 demonstrators outside the White House earlier this year to protest the pipeline.
A spokesman for Friends of the Earth said a call for grassroots opposition to the deal generated more than 10,000 phone calls to U.S. senators on Friday.
"We are surprised at the extent to which the Republicans have decided to go to bat for Big Oil here," said Nick Berning, a spokesman for the group. "We're urging the Democrats to stand strong with the position they've articulated and not to cave."
House Republicans warned last week they planned to include approval of the Keystone pipeline to a payroll tax cut bill, a challenge to President Barack Obama, who has said he would veto such a bill if the pipeline deal is part of it.
But on Friday, a White House spokesman left open the possibility that Obama might consider approving the legislation to get the extended tax cut.
Last month, the president delayed approval of the controversial Canada to Texas pipeline until after the 2012 U.S. election by opting to explore a new route that would avoid the environmentally sensitive Sand Hills of Nebraska.
The State Department, which has authority in this cross-border project, suggested then that looking at new routes for the pipeline would take until early 2013 at the earliest. The department had previously said it hoped to make a final decision this year.
As opponents of the deal marshaled their forces, a policy analyst said that even if the president does approve this deal to force a decision on the pipeline in two months, the State Department would be unable to conduct an analysis of the proposed new route by then.
"There's almost no way the State Department can meet the requirements of the law in that brief time," said Daniel Weiss of the Center for American Progress.
"The president will have little choice than to not approve the permit. If he were to approve the permit anyway it would not survive a court challenge."
Sierra Club's executive director, Michael Brune, said his group was disappointed Keystone was in play in this debate, and said he was encouraged by Obama's comments earlier this week that the pipeline and the payroll tax should not be part of the same bill.
"Republicans are pursuing a misguided strategy," said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We know the president has made his stance clear, but Keystone fast-tracking should not happen at all. It's going to mean rejection of the pipeline."
(Editing by Todd Eastham)
(Reporting By Deborah Zabarenko; additional reporting by Timothy Gardner)