House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline might be a "worthy" project, but it won't ease prices at the pump.
The remarks are the first hint that the California Democrat might see merits in the controversial pipeline, which many liberal Democrats say will ravage the environment.
Supporters of the project — including Republicans, labor unions and the oil industry — say it would create tens of thousands of new jobs.
Pelosi did not expand on how Keystone might benefit the country, instead attacking the Republicans' argument that the project would make the United States more energy-independent.
"There are those who are saying that this pipeline is necessary … [as] a source of energy for our country," she said. "The fact is there's no evidence to support that."
Senate Republicans are pushing a vote Thursday to overturn President Obama's decision to block immediate approval of the TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL project, which would deliver oil from the sands of Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries. The president did not criticize the project on its merits, but said his administration was not given time to evaluate the impact of the pipeline on the environment.
Republicans contend that even delaying the project threatens to kill jobs and hike fuel costs amid a fragile economy when gas prices are soaring.
Pelosi rejected that argument, citing remarks from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper indicating that Canada's target market is Asia, not the United States.
“I am very serious about selling our oil off this continent, selling our energy products off to Asia," Harper said in a December interview with CTV National News.
Pelosi said: "Everyone knows that the fact is that this pipeline was going to be built, or may still be built, to bring oil to the [U.S.] refineries to take it overseas. This isn't about domestic consumption."
The debate arrives as fuel prices continue to rise, with the average cost for gas hitting $3.76 a gallon Thursday — up from $3.48 a month ago, according to AAA.
Republicans are hammering the Democrats on the issue, arguing that the price spike is a direct result of Obama's energy policy, including his blocking the Keystone project. Those criticisms became more pronounced Thursday after the White House acknowledged Obama is actively pressuring Democrats to oppose the Senate Keystone amendment.
"At a moment when millions are out of work, gas prices are skyrocketing and the Middle East is in turmoil, we've got a president who's up making phone calls trying to block a pipeline here at home," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "It's unbelievable."
Democratic leaders have responded by blaming Wall Street speculators for the rising costs.
"The Keystone argument is a phony argument," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a supporter of the project, told reporters Thursday. "We are producing more domestic product now than we have in eight years [and] we are importing less."
The Keystone pipeline has been a sharp thorn in the side of Obama, pitting two of his most loyal constituencies — environmentalists and labor unions — against each other.
Many liberal Democrats say Congress should be concentrating on clean, renewable energy sources, rather than fossil fuels.
"Many of us believe that that pipeline will lock us into a 50 to 100 years of dependence on the dirtiest source of oil," Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said earlier this year.