White House hires former Keystone XL lobbyist as Senate liaison
People demonstrate against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline on Nov. 19, 2013 in Washington (AFP)

The Obama administration's new point person on White House-Senate relations previously worked as a lobbyist to promote the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Marty Paone, formerly a lobbyist with Prime Policy Group, was hired by the White House last week to be the deputy assistant for legislative affairs where he will be responsible for working with the Senate on White House legislative priorities, but he will be excluded from issues related to the pipeline.

The Center for Responsive Politics shows Paone and his firm received $280,000 in 2013 and 2014 from the In Situ Oil Sands Alliance, a group of four companies working to develop oil sands in Alberta, Canada, that would be exported to the United States should Transcanada's Keystone XL pipeline be constructed.

The fate of the pipeline has been in limbo for years, becoming a symbolically important political issue.

Environmental groups claim that stopping the $8 billion pipeline would curb development of Canada’s oilsands, reducing climate-changing carbon emissions.

Republicans and unions that represent construction workers say the project would create jobs and is a safer way to move oil than by train.

In January, the Senate – then controlled by Republicans – will take steps to approve the project.

Ethics guidelines prohibit executive agencies from hiring anyone who has lobbied the agency in the past two years, which Paone has done at the Executive Office of the President, said a memorandum by the Counsel to the President.

The White House waived that restriction, citing "public interest" as the reason for Paone's hiring.

Paone has agreed not to work on issues related to the Keystone pipeline while he is in the job, a White House official said.

Obama on Friday downplayed the positive impact the pipeline would have, but stopped short of saying he would veto the plan.

Sources close to the administration have said Obama may be open to using the project as leverage with Republicans if they cooperate on other aspects of his agenda, such as investing in infrastructure, closing tax loopholes or reducing carbon emissions.

Paone is not the first White House official to have to agree to exclude himself from working on issues related to Keystone.

A year ago, when John Podesta signed on to help Obama as his senior counselor, he said he would not get involved in the debate.

Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, was known to be a fierce opponent of the project, and is closely aligned with environmental groups working to stop it.

(Reporting By Julia Edwards; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Ken Wills)