By Laura Barron-Lopez - 01/22/14 02:41 PM EST
TransCanada’s CEO called Keystone XL “the safest oil pipeline built in America to date” during a Wednesday conference call highlighting the opening of its southern leg.
Russ Girling, the CEO of the company responsible for building the controversial pipeline, said he expects the success of the southern leg will prove the case for its more controversial northern leg.
The northern leg remains under review by the State Department, and the Obama administration is under heavy pressure from environmental groups to reject it.
Several green groups on Wednesday decried the opening of the southern leg, criticizing President Obama.
“Today’s announcement is a painful example of President Obama’s all of the above energy plan at work: polluted air and water, carbon pollution, and the ever present threat of poisoned drinking water for millions of Texas and Oklahoma families," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement.
“The Sierra Club will fight hard to protect the families who are now at risk, and turn the Obama administration’s shortsighted dirty energy policy around,” added Brune, who is normally a fan of Obama's climate agenda.
The environmental advocacy group 350.org's Bill McKibben also pointed the finger at Obama for falling out of line with his promises to battle climate change.
”Expediting KXL south was not the mark of a president who really 'gets' climate change,” McKibben said in a statement on Wednesday.
Girling pushed back at suggestions there is any danger in the Alberta-to-the Gulf-Coast pipeline, arguing his company voluntarily has agreed to dozens of conditions to ensure its safety.
The safety conditions include remote controlled shutoff valves, increased pipeline inspections and higher construction standards.
“We voluntarily agreed to 57 conditions with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration,” he said. “The 57 conditions will provide even greater confidence of monitoring. No other pipeline built has matched these conditions.”
A spokesman for TransCanada said the 57 conditions will also apply to the development of Keystone XL's northern leg were it approved.
The Keystone debate is taking place against the backdrop of a growing number of oil-by-rail accidents that has emboldened lawmakers and industry groups pushing to build pipelines.
As the U.S. reaches new records in its domestic oil production, many worry the nation's railcar and pipeline infrastructure is unable to keep up.
Girling said TransCanada built the southern leg to “relieve the glut of crude oil in places like Cushing, Okla.,” and to transport growing supplies of U.S. oil to meet refinery demand.
In December, TransCanada began injecting the southern leg with 3 million barrels of oil. The pipeline developer expects an average of 520,000 barrels a day to flow through the southern leg during its first year of operation.
Touting what he said was the thousands of jobs the southern leg provided to the U.S., Girling said Keystone XL’s northern leg would create twice as many.
Roughly 4,844 workers in the U.S. helped construct the southern leg. But more than 9,000 would work on Keystone XL's northern leg if the Obama administration were to give it the OK, he said.
The northern leg requires the president's approval because it crosses over the U.S. border with Canada.
Canada’s government is a major supporter of the pipeline, and lawmakers hosted top Canadian officials last week to push for its approval. They said the pipeline would not exacerbate carbon emissions or have a negative impact on the environmental
TransCanada spent roughly $1.05 million to lobby Congress and the administration last year — a sizable jump from what it spent it 2012, according to filings.
TransCanada's lobbying push focused on natural-gas issues, energy legislation and permitting issues for the Keystone XL pipeline project.