HELENA - State Sen. Larry Jent on Tuesday challenged his Democratic opponent for governor, Attorney General Steve Bullock, to join him in urging President Barack Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

Jent wrote Obama on Monday urging the president to instruct Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to approve the pipeline when the 60-day deadline for a decision expires. That deadline was added to the omnibus budget bill passed by Congress late last year.

Bullock, however, already expressed his support for the pipeline more than three months ago in a letter to Clinton when the federal government was seeking comment, his campaign spokesman, Kevin O'Brien, said. In his letter Sept. 27 - the same day as the federal hearing on the project in Glendive - Bullock encouraged Clinton to grant the presidential permit for the pipeline, which would cross part of Montana.

"With tight regulation and appropriate, long-term oversight, the Keystone XL pipeline project has the ability to create thousands of jobs, in Montana, advance domestic security and be a shot in the arm to our economy," Bullock wrote then.

In his letter to Obama, Jent said the pipeline enjoys bipartisan support in Montana for many reasons.

"First, it creates a number of much-needed construction jobs," Bozeman lawmaker said. "Second, due to an on-ramp negotiated by Governor (Brian) Schweitzer near Baker, Mont., it provides transportation for Montana's crude oil from the Bakken formation by pipeline as opposed to trucking that oil."

It was one of the first times Jent has gone after Bullock in what's been a low-key primary race for governor.

In a news release, Jent also called on Bullock to outline some specific positions on energy-related issues.

"Steve Bullock and I differ on the important issue of the role of coal in Montana's economic future," Jent said. "I support the development of the Otter Creek (coal) tracts; Steve voted against that while on the Land Board.

"I spoke for and voted for (the) Montana Alberta Tie Line (MATL) this past year in the Senate. Does anyone know where Steve stands on energy?"

In response, O'Brien said, Bullock "believes that Montana can create jobs and grow our rural economies through responsible development of our vast energy resources, including coal, wind, oil and gas, hydropower, biofuels and geothermal. That's why he's a supporter of Otter Creek."

"But Steve also believes that Montana shouldn't give away our resources," O'Brien said.

Montana leased the Otter Creek coal for less than half of what experts said it could be worth and one-ninth of what Wyoming is getting, he said.

"Had we waited, we could have received nearly $200 million for Montana taxpayers," Bullock's spokesman said.

Jent is a lawyer in private practice who has served in the Legislature since 2001, while Bullock was elected as Montana's attorney general in 2008 after a private law practice.

As of Dec. 31, Bullock enjoys a large lead in campaign fundraising. He had $231,819 in cash in the bank for the primary campaign to Jent's $6,788.

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