WASHINGTON — The chief executive of a Canadian company that wants to pipe oil from tar sands in western Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast says he is surprised at the opposition the project has generated.

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CEO Russ Girling, Calgary-based TransCanada, said Friday he did not expect the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to become a "lightning rod" in the debate over fossil fuels and alternative energy. The company installed a similar pipeline less than two years ago with little opposition.

Environmental activists, religious groups and young people inspired by the protests against Wall Street plan are protesting the 1,700-mile pipeline, which would travel through Montana, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

The State Department is holding a hearing on the $7 billion project. A decision is expected in December.