House Votes for Keystone Approval in Symbolic Act

The vote is hardly the last word on what remains one of the hottest fights in Washington.

Keystone XL protest in Washington D.C. in March 2014. Credit: Michael Hyman

House Republicans, joined by a few dozen Democrats, voted once again on Friday to push the Keystone XL pipeline through without presidential approval.

The action, choreographed with a vote in the Senate next week, was freighted with political symbolism but hardly the last word on what remains one of the hottest fights in Washington.

The vote was 252 to 161, with just 31 Democrats joining the practically unanimous Republicans in favor of the bill.

That means enough Democrats voted against the pipeline to uphold a presidential veto if it comes to that. It takes 146 votes in the House to uphold a veto.

The Senate is expected to vote on Nov. 18, but it is not yet clear whether the necessary 60 votes are there to send a final bill to President Obama. It takes 67 of 100 Senators to override a veto.

Major environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and the League of Conservation Voters, bruised by the election that cemented Republican control of the Congress, are working furiously to shore up a veto defense.

The pipeline debate may well come to a climax next year when there will be more Republicans in the Senate. After Nebraska's Supreme Court rules on a challenge to the pipeline's route, President Obama may announce his final decision. If not, the pipeline's backers may attach it to some other piece of legislation, increasing the pressure on him to cave in.

For now, he seems unmoved.

At a press conference in Burma, Obama said: "Understand what this project is: It is providing the ability of Canada to pump their oil, send it through our land, down to the Gulf, where it will be sold everywhere else. It doesn't have an impact on U.S. gas prices.

"If my Republican friends really want to focus on what's good for the American people in terms of job creation and lower energy costs, we should be engaging in a conversation about what are we doing to produce even more homegrown energy? I'm happy to have that conversation."

It was largely for political reasons that Congressional leaders decided to go for a straight up or down vote on the Keystone XL in the opening days of the new lame duck session of Congress. The House Republican and the Senate Democrat vying in Louisiana's Senate runoff both wanted the vote.

The House deliberations were perfunctory and predictable.

"Republicans, as soon as they won this body and became the majority, we started passing laws to jumpstart the pipeline," recalled Representative Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican.

"We have pretty much passed the darn thing before and it hasn't changed much," agreed Representative Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat.

There is little new substance in the interminable political debate over the Keystone project. Instead, it has left Congress wandering on the borderline between symbolism and somnambulism.

Many members—indeed, most of them—appear intent on an energy and climate policy devoted to the production of ever more fossil fuels, whether that means importing Canadian tar sands, drilling for domestic oil or fracking natural gas. They tout the economic benefits of this approach, especially since it would unleash growing exports of refined products, crude oil and liquefied natural gas.

Like sleepwalkers, the most ardent fossil fuel allies in Congress can seem oblivious to what else is happening around them:

  • The $75 price of oil that is suddenly undermining the tar sands' economics.

  • The boom in domestic oil production, now at 9 million barrels a day.

  • The newly proclaimed commitment of Obama and his Chinese counterpart to wean their nations away from hydrocarbons.

  • The renewed advice from climate scientists that the long term target should be zero-carbon energy.

  • Steady data showing that the average global surface temperature this year has been the hottest in recorded history.

  • The administration's impending announcement that it will pledge $3 billion as a down payment on the climate costs facing poor countries.

There was only a momentary reference in the House debate to the question of where tar sands fit into the world's carbon budget, or the amount of fossil fuels countries can safely burn before triggering irreversible climatic changes. And the House brushed aside a Democratic proposal that tar sands crude should be taxed like regular oil to help finance the U.S. oil spill response fund.

Indeed, the Republican-led bill essentially cuts off any review at all of the pipeline and forecloses most avenues of legal challenge.

Supporters say the Keystone XL would enhance energy security; opponents say the days of import dependence are over, and that refineries would export the tar sands products. Backers say the project would help keep fuel prices low; opponents claim that it is intended to increase the prices Canadian producers get. There is the perennial discussion of jobs—building the project would employ a few thousand seasonal workers for two summers. And though the 800,000 barrels of oil that would flow through the pipeline (and associated carbon emissions) are a drop in the global bucket, the project is crucial to the doubling and redoubling Canadian tar sands production. It is a major infrastructure decision that would lock in greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come.

Even some of the bill's Republican supporters in the House recognized that "this is tomfoolery, what is going on tonight," as Representative Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania put it. "The one job they are trying to save right now is in the Senate, ladies and gentlemen. It has nothing to do with policy. It is all politics."

"Hey, it could help a House member beat a Senate member and get elected to the Senate," said Representative Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat. "So I guess it is a bad bill whose time has come."

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