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In addition to Keystone, TransCanada and CEO Russ Girling are also proposing the Energy East pipeline from Alberta to Montreal, Quebec City and Saint John.Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Keystone XL is "just a pipeline" that will have little impact on the pace of development in the oil sands, says the head of TransCanada Corp., hitting back at opponents who argue that stopping the project is crucial to fighting climate change.

Chief executive officer Russ Girling said the $5.4-billion pipeline has unfairly been cast as the embodiment of the ills of the energy business. But he suggested that oil industry economics, including crude prices and the cost of production, will be more important than one proposed pipeline in determining how quickly Alberta increases its output from the oil sands.

The Keystone project "has become this symbol of everything that's wrong with the fossil fuel energy industry. And it's not," he said.

"It transports products from A to B, and it does that safely. It has no material impact on refining markets or supply."

Mr. Girling's comments, made in an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail in advance of TransCanada's annual meeting this week, illustrate one of the main arguments likely to be employed by the company and its supporters as the Keystone debate heads toward its conclusion. In the U.S., the project is the subject of public hearings, congressional debate and arguments from the energy industry, unions, landowners and climate activists. Alberta Premier Alison Redford has said rejection of the project could damage the two countries' strong economic relationship.

The U.S. State Department concluded last month the pipeline will not, on its own, have a major impact on development in the oil sands and, therefore, on global emissions of greenhouse gases. Mr. Girling's remarks are intended to support that view, and to counter the opinions of environmentalists who say approval of Keystone XL would lift the remaining obstacles to unhindered oil sands growth.

When shareholders gather in Calgary this Friday, Mr. Girling and other executives will provide an overview of the company, which has an enterprise value of $55-billion and owns oil and gas pipelines and power generation and gas storage facilities across North America. The uncertainty surrounding its highest-profile project is sure to surface, but the CEO will continue to make the argument that TransCanada has made the case for the pipeline from Hardisty, Alta., to the Texas Gulf Coast, and that the company is far more than the face of Keystone XL.

"We've got a lot of other things on the go," he said.

Those other things include natural-gas pipeline assets in Mexico and private nuclear power generation through its share in Ontario's Bruce Power. TransCanada is also proposing the Energy East pipeline, a combination of 3,000 kilometres of converted gas pipeline and up to 1,400 kilometres of new oil pipeline construction that would stretch from Alberta to Montreal, Quebec City and Saint John. The project could see more Western Canadian oil shipped to Eastern Canadian markets, and by tanker to destinations even farther afield.

"If we're going to be an oil-exporting nation, we're going to have to get oil exported on the water," Mr. Girling said.

But focus on TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline, and whether it is the critical piece of infrastructure to ensure continued growth in Alberta's oil sands, is not likely to end soon.

Mr. Girling acknowledged that after a number of high-profile oil spills, including BP's spill in the Gulf of Mexico, both the public and regulators have higher expectations for pipeline companies. Earlier this month, the National Energy Board released a lengthy list of potential conditions Enbridge Inc. must put in place if it is given permission to build its controversial Northern Gateway project. They included holding nearly $1-billion in liability coverage.

"When you start talking about numbers like that, I believe that they're outside the realm of what's real," he said.

But Mr. Girling added, "if that's what gains public confidence, and ensures that the people are comfortable with what we're doing, then that's fine."

Steven Paget, an analyst with FirstEnergy Capital Corp., said the importance of Keystone XL depends on whether other projects go ahead, including Energy East and Enbridge's Line 9 reversal – both to Canada's East Coast.

"There's a lot of oil and not a lot of pipeline right now," Mr. Paget said.

Greg Pardy, an analyst at RBC Dominion Securities, has written that turning down Keystone XL could result in the deferral of 450,000 barrels a day of oil sands output between 2015 and 2017.

Mr. Paget said he expects investors to grill Mr. Girling and other executives this week about the timeline for approval on the massive pipeline project.

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