05/15/2012 06:39 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2012

Keystone XL Pipeline Eyed To Ease Truck Gridlock On North Dakota Roads

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON, May 15 (Reuters) - The McKenzie County Sheriff Department has a map of the narrow grid of two-lane highways coming out of an oil-rich corner of North Dakota, each rutted route lined with dozens of red stick pins marking the site of traffic accidents so far this year.

The map is a sign of how infrastructure has failed to keep up with the boom in U.S. oil production, as small roads built for grain trucks and cars are overwhelmed by trucks laden with equipment, sand and water used for drilling, and crude oil.

"The impatient drivers, when they're getting behind 18, 19, 20 trucks, you can't pass on a two-lane road. But people try it," said Cal Klewin, executive director of the Theodore Roosevelt Expressway Association, describing the dangerous traffic in the region.

For Republican Senator John Hoeven, examples of gridlocked roads in his home state help make the case for fast-tracking the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline, which would help take more than 100,000 barrels of oil per day -- about 500 trucks worth -- off of North Dakota roads.

Hoeven and other Republicans are pushing to include approvals for TransCanada Corp's pipeline in a new highway funding bill, the details of which are now being hashed out by 47 lawmakers from the Senate and House of Representatives, who face a looming June 30 deadline.

The pipeline would run from the Canadian oil sands south to Texas refineries, picking up oil from North Dakota and Montana along the way.

President Barack Obama put all but the southernmost portion of the pipeline on hold earlier this year, pending further environmental reviews. He has threatened to veto a highway bill overriding his decision.

Many Democratic lawmakers have argued the Keystone permit provision does not belong in the transportation bill. They say the fight to include it puts at risk as many as three million jobs fixing roads and bridges.

"We're talking about a highway bill, aren't we? This relates directly to highways," Hoeven said in an interview.

"Those pipelines take trucks off the roads," he said, pulling a road atlas out of his Capitol Hill desk to point out highways in his state suffering from traffic-overload.

Klewin's group is pushing for a four-lane highway to help move the trucks carrying supplies to and from drilling sites and reduce the number of red pins on the sheriff's map. The pipeline would also help, he said.

"I think we need both," Klewin said.

In Washington, lawmakers' staff have logged about 20 hours of work so far finding areas of agreement on the bill, said Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, chairman of the conference panel.

"We haven't got down to areas of disagreement, and we will," Boxer told reporters, when asked about the Keystone pipeline.

The final bill will need to find enough votes in the House and Senate to pass, she noted.

"What I've said from the start is, if you load this up with controversy that can't get through either house, it's a problem."

Boxer said she will meet on Thursday with John Mica, the top House Republican on the conference committee, and will meet one-on-one with members over coffee on particular issues.

She said she will brief all 47 members of the committee this week on progress, and give a public update of the private talks to reporters once a week.

"I am optimistic the conferees will reach agreement on this bill," Boxer said, citing strong letters from business groups and unions urging lawmakers to finish their work by the deadline.