By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The State Department says it is taking the unusual step of releasing publicly the feedback it has received about a controversial pipeline project after an "unprecedented" response to its draft environmental report.
The department said it had received more than 1.2 million comments on TransCanada Corp's proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would run from oil sands in Alberta, Canada to refineries and ports along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
The State Department posted about 100,000 comments late on Thursday and plans to release sets of a similar number each week, a process that will take about three months. The comments can be viewed at http://www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=DOS-2013-0011
"This marks the first time the Department has made all individual comments on a Presidential permit application available to the public," a State Department release said.
The northern leg of the pipeline running from Alberta to Nebraska needs the approval of President Barack Obama because it crosses a national border. Work is well under way on the southern leg, from Texas to Oklahoma.
The State Department said the decision to release the comments was part of an effort to be as transparent as possible about the elements that will go into the decision on whether to approve the project.
The first batch of comments reflected a variety of interests, from lawmakers to local citizens.
Echoing a fractious public hearing held by the State Department in Grand Island, Nebraska last month, they reflected the polarizing nature of the project. Respondents differed widely over the environmental and economic assessments.
The State Department released its 2,000-page environmental impact report on Keystone in March, more than four years after the project was first floated. On balance, the report seemed to lean toward approving the proposed 830,000 barrel per day pipeline.
However, in April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rated the draft review "insufficient," signaling that unless the State Department addressed those concerns there could be new roadblocks to the project, which has an estimated cost of at least $5.3 billion.
A U.S. official said this month that a decision on whether to give the go-ahead to the pipeline may not be made until November, December or even early 2014, given the need to painstakingly weigh the impact on the environment against the benefits to energy security.
Among the first batch of comments on the State Department site, two senators - one a Democrat and one a Republican - from states through which the pipeline will pass called for "expeditious approval" of the project, saying it would help the economies of their states and have minimal environmental impact.
"The draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) affirmed what states along the pipeline route determined in their own environmental reviews - this project is environmentally sound and should move forward," wrote Senators Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican, and Heidi Heidkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota.
(Editing by Ros Krasny and David Brunnstrom)