WASHINGTON – President Obama remains uncommitted regarding construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, but recent remarks indicate he maintains serious qualms about allowing completion of the 1,661-mile, $7 billion project.

That apparent reluctance has attracted barbs from supporters who maintain the pipeline running from Hardisty, Alberta, Canada, to an area near the Texas Gulf Coast will create thousands of jobs and promote energy security.

“We need to get this project done for the American people,” said Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who sponsored a resolution with Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and several other lawmakers asserting that the project is in the public interest.

“It really is about jobs,” Hoeven said. “It is about economic growth and activity. It is about energy for our country and getting this country to the point where we are energy independent, energy secure, where we don’t need to rely on oil from the Middle East. That is why 82 percent of Americans in the most recent poll across this country are saying this is the kind of project we need.”

But in a recent interview with the New York Times, Obama held that pipeline construction won’t be the “big jobs generator” that its supporters maintain. And, the president added, the project will do little to enhance the nation’s energy situation.

“Putting all your eggs in the basket of an oil pipeline that may only create about 50 permanent jobs…isn’t a jobs plan,” Obama said in a speech focusing on employment in Chattanooga, Tenn., on July 30.

Obama is expected to decide the pipeline’s fate by the end of 2013 or early 2014 at the latest. At least part of the decision will be based on a review of the project by the State Department, which is involved because it’s a multi-national project with Canada.

The Keystone pipeline, a project of the TransCanada Corp., an energy company based in Calgary, Alberta, is primarily intended to transport oil sands bitumen – sands saturated with a viscous form of petroleum — from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries.

Two phases covering 2,151 miles already are operating, one from Hardisty, Alberta, to Patoka, Ill., and a second from Steele City, Neb., to Cushing, Okla. A third phase under construction will run from Cushing to the Texas Gulf Coast.

The pipeline system currently in operation can move up to 590,000 barrels of the crude Canadian oil to refineries in the American Midwest per day.

It is a proposed fourth phase that is drawing controversy. TransCanada wants to run a 1,661-mile pipeline from Hardisty crossing over the border into Morgan, Mont., that would cost about $5.3 billion and move 830,000 barrels of crude oil per day. If approved, it will terminate in Steele City, where the oil will enter the other pipelines.

Environmentalists strongly oppose the fourth phase, expressing concern over oil spills and the potential for damage to the Ogallala aquifer, one of the world’s largest underground water tables, which spans eight states, provides drinking water to two million people and supports $20 billion in agriculture.

Originally the route of the fourth phase was supposed to cross the Sand Hills in Nebraska, a large wetland ecosystem. TransCanada changed the route to avoid the conflict.

Environmentalists like Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) also maintain extracting the oil sands will further contribute to global climate change, noting the removal requires a greater expenditure of greenhouse gas emissions compared to the extraction of conventional oil.

“The tar sands oil to be transported by the Keystone XL pipeline would wreak havoc on our climate by unleashing up to 22 percent more carbon pollution than average crude oil refined in the U.S.,” Whitehouse said. “With communities in Rhode Island and around the country already suffering from the effects of carbon pollution, we can’t afford to make things worse.”