WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Environmental groups sued the U.S. government on Wednesday to stop "illegal construction" on a controversial pipeline that would weave through the center of the United States to bring Canadian oil sands crude direct to Texas refineries.
The Center for Biological Diversity, the Western Nebraska Resources Council and Friends of the Earth sued the State Department and the Fish and Wildlife Service to stop the company from clearing grasslands as part of its Keystone XL pipeline project.
Backers of TransCanada's pipeline say it will provide thousands of jobs and reduce U.S. dependence on oil from countries that are unfriendly to Washington.
Environmentalists oppose the line because mining Alberta's oil sands pumps large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and it would cross the Ogallala Aquifer, a major water source in the country's heartland.
There have been several small leaks on an existing Keystone pipeline in recent months and environmentalists say a larger leak would be disastrous.
TransCanada wants to build the pipeline to pump 500,000 barrels per day of crude from Canada's vast oil sands in northern Alberta so it can be refined in the Gulf Coast refineries.
The line could also transport oil from new fields in the Midwest, which has caused a supply glut in the Cushing, Oklahoma crude hub.
"It's outrageous that TransCanada is already clearing the way for the Keystone XL pipeline before the public has had a chance to have its say and, indeed, before federal agencies have even said it can be built," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species program director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Nebraska. It can be seen here: http://link.reuters.com/gad34s.
The groups say the State Department and the Fish and Wildlife Service have quietly allowed TransCanada to do the work, including mowing a corridor of prairie grasslands in Nebraska's ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region and moving an endangered beetle species from the path of the pipeline.
TransCanada spokesman James Millar denied the company has begun construction, saying it had implemented conservation measures designed to protect the beetle.
"We have moved beetles and mowed some grass to assure the protection of the American Burying Beetle. Mowing -- not construction," Millay said in an email.
The State Department was expected to decide later this year whether the pipeline can go forward. It has already released an assessment that found the line would not hurt the environment.
Opponents of the line say more suits will likely be filed in federal court over endangered species, wetlands and other issues once the State Department approves a presidential permit of the line, which is required because the project crosses the U.S.-Canadian border.
The Fish and Wildlife Service referred requests for comment on the suit to the State Department. A spokeswoman there said the department had no comment.
Environmental groups are also attacking the State Department for being too close with TransCanada and its chief lobbyist.
The State Department on Wednesday, in an effort to rebut charges from Friends of the Earth, said its officials have held 11 meetings at the department with industry groups and 10 with environmental groups.
"My understanding from the people who have prepared this is that they were quite pleased to find that our contacts were basically equivalent in this building," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
On Monday, the department rejected Friends of the Earth's charges that emails obtained by the environmental group painted a picture of a bias in favor of the pipeline project.
The group said Marja Verloop, a senior diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Ottawa, seemed to be cheering for TransCanada Corp.'s lobbyist in an email.
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Russell Blinch and Paul Simao)
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