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Tom SteyerRich Pedroncelli/The Associated Press

Billionaire anti-Keystone XL activist Tom Steyer wants to rally legions of digital-savvy Obama supporters to persuade the President that Canadian oil sands crude poses a threat to the United States.

The wealthy Californian upped the ante Thursday in the high-stakes political showdown over Keystone XL by launching a social media campaign aimed at re-awakening the fervent hordes of mostly, young Obama supporters.

The long-delayed $5.3-billion Keystone project would deliver Alberta's vast oil sands bitumen to world markets through an 830,000-barrel-a-day pipeline snaking across the American heartland to Gulf Coast refineries.

"We're going to call this campaign 'We love our land' and it's going to take from today through Labour Day and hopefully it will mobilize supporters who want to help the President fight for forward-looking climate policies and start that by blocking the Keystone pipeline that threatens our nation," Mr. Steyer said at a National Press Club news conference that featured a jar of Canadian heavy crude being theatrically poured across a poster bearing the name of the project's sponsor TransCanada Corp.

In a simultaneous announcement, more than 140 former Obama campaign workers issued a public letter to the president that, in effect, challenged him not to betray their trust.

"You have been the source of our hope and inspiration," said the letter. "Please don't disappoint us, reject Keystone XL," adding that many voted for Mr. Obama because "we told them you'd be on the right side of history, …. Because we knew you would do the right thing and stop this pipeline."

Although environmental groups along with small bands of landowners and indigenous peoples along Keystone XL's route have mounted spirited and growing protests to the project, it has yet to ignite as a major national issue.

If Mr. Steyer's is willing to back the digital campaign with significant funding, it could pose the most serious threat yet to the project changes of winning presidential approval later this year.

Rejecting Keystone XL "is the biggest 'no-brainer' that will cross the president's desk" during his eight years on the Oval Office, said Van Jones, a former special advisor to the president, who used the same phase – albeit suggesting a different outcome – that Prime Minister Stephen Harper used to describe the pipeline decision.

Mr. Jones, like Mr. Steyer and others including major anti-Keystone XL groups are now publicly rejecting suggestions that Mr. Obama may attempt some sort of a grand bargain on the pipeline project by announcing tougher carbon emissions limits for coal-fired power plants first to burnish his green credentials and then approving the pipeline.

TransCanada is now squarely in the crosshairs of anti-Keystone XL activists who increasingly vilify the company.

"This is not about energy independence for Americans: TransCanada is not an American corporation, TransCanada is a shady foreign corporation that's being sued and investigated in its own country," Mr. Jones said. "How giving a shady foreign corporation the right to risk our air and water is going to give us energy independence when we know that oil's going to China, … makes no sense."

Increasingly opponents of Keystone XL are attacking the key argument advanced by the Canadian government that buying crude from a nearby and reliable neighbour is in America's interests especially when compared to sometimes hostile and faraway regimes.

But Mr. Steyer said the case for Keystone "doesn't stand up against serious scrutiny."

He said Keystone XL, if built, would perversely drive up U.S. gasoline prices by draining the glut of heavily discounted Canadian crude currently depressing prices. He said only a handful of jobs would be created. "If we were really interested in jobs, we would be moving to … an advanced energy economy which would, in fact, create millions of jobs, not 35 jobs." As for the "very dirty oil from tar sands transported by the Keystone pipeline is going to make our climate crisis worse when we need to be solving it."

He also dismissed the widely touted Canadian claim that Alberta's vast oil sands reserves will be extracted and moved to market, whether or not Keystone XL is built. "Basically that argument is that we should do the wrong thing before anyone else does," he said, adding that in the wake of British Columbia's unwillingness to approve a pipeline to funnel oil sands crude to the west coast, it is even more important to reject Keystone XL.

"We really cannot afford 40 to 50 years of development of a humungous oil reserve that is twice as bad – soup to nuts – as normal crude," he said.