XL-ent: House Approves Keystone Bill as Landrieu Rallies Support in the Senate

The long, drawn-out battle over the Keystone XL pipeline entered a new chapter on Friday, as the House of Representatives voted to approve its construction, 252-161. 31 Democrats crossed the aisle in support of the bill, which will now move to Harry Reid’s lame duck Senate. After the vote, House Speaker John Boehner urged President Obama to support the long-delayed project:

“Thousands more Americans would be working today if President Obama had put their priorities ahead of his political interests and approved the Keystone pipeline. Instead, he continues to block the project, and the new jobs, lower costs, and increased energy security it would provide,” he said in a statement. “The president doesn’t have any more elections to win, and he has no other excuse for standing in the way. It’s time he start listening to the vast majority of Americans who support Keystone and help get more people back to work.”

Spearheaded by the Calgary-based corporation TransCanada, the Keystone project is a massive, multi-phased energy venture designed to deliver oil from Alberta to the Gulf Coast of Texas.

Keystone-pipeline-route

Phases I and II have already been completed, allowing for the delivery of oil from Canada to Oklahoma, while construction on the southern-based phase III should be finalized next year. It is phase IV that has caused controversy, drawing the wrath of eco-activists who claim it will harm the environment.

At issue are the pipeline’s potential to increase carbon emissions and its route through Nebraska. The oil that originates in Canada is taken from tar sands, a difficult terrain that requires more intensive removal procedures than conventional crude. Opponents of Keystone XL argue that such a complex extraction process will require high energy expenditures and result in a stark increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Proponents counter that, should the U.S. stymie the plan, Canada will find a willing partner in China and generate far more carbon emissions through the subsequent overseas delivery process.

With regard to Keystone XL’s pathway, original proposals called for it to traverse the state’s Sandhills region, a wetland area sitting atop the Ogalalla Aquifer. The Aquifer provides drinking water for two million people and provides irrigation for lands that generate $20 billion dollars in agricultural business. Despite the fact that multiple State Department reviews have indicated that the pipeline would have minimal environmental impact, and that there is little chance of a spill, Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman submitted an alternate proposal with a new route that avoided the Sandhills completely. Even that was not enough, and a legal challenge is currently being heard in the Nebraska Supreme Court over the pipeline’s siting. The president has used the pending litigation to postpone any final decision on when, or if, construction will proceed.

Despite the fact that the House has approved the project eight different times, Keystone XL has now been delayed for six years. Although estimates show that the pipeline would deliver as many as 830,000 barrels of oil a day and create thousands of jobs, President Obama has downplayed the potential benefits, seeking to quell the other major Democratic constituency involved in the energy debate: labor unions. In an interview with the New York Times, he argued,

Republicans have said that this would be a big jobs generator. There is no evidence that that’s true. And my hope would be that any reporter who is looking at the facts would take the time to confirm that the most realistic estimates are this might create maybe 2,000 jobs during the construction of the pipeline — which might take a year or two — and then after that we’re talking about somewhere between 50 and 100 [chuckles] jobs in a economy of 150 million working people.

A State Department report disputed the president’s meager assessment, indicating that as many as 42,000 direct or indirect jobs could be created during the pipeline’s construction. 4,000 jobs have already been created during the southern portion of the Keystone project, helping to garner high levels of public support for its final phase. Should today’s House bill make it through the Senate, it will present an interesting dilemma for a president already at odds with the will of the people.

Passage in the Upper Chamber is far from guaranteed, though the bill is likely to garner more Democratic support than past efforts due to the ongoing Louisiana Senate race. Incumbent Mary Landrieu is engaged in an uphill battle against Republican challenger Bill Cassidy, trailing by 16 points in a recent poll. Desperate to rally voters in the energy-rich state, Landrieu has thrown her weight behind Keystone XL, and will sponsor the bill when it reaches the Senate next week. Cassidy countered in the legislative proxy war, sponsoring the House bill. It now remains to be seen whether Landrieu’s Democratic colleagues will betray their base, which has largely opposed the project, in an effort to save one of their own.