Senate Approval of Keystone 62-36 Hides Deep Divisions, Fierce Battles Ahead

Nothing in the Keystone debate suggests there's bipartisan consensus on any basic energy issue, or on the biggest climate question of all.

Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), the ranking minority member on the Senate Energy Committee, speaks on the Senate Floor on Jan. 29, 2015, before the Senate voted 62-36 to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. "Maybe it bodes well for a bigger, bipartisan energy bill," she said of the vote, though that appears to be wishful thinking. Credit: Senate Democrats

The moment the gavel hammered through Thursday's vote in Congress to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, some in the Senate were predicting that a bipartisan consensus on energy policy was just around the corner.

The Republican and Democratic senators who stage-managed the pipeline bill—Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Maria Cantwell of Washington—both surmised after the 62-36 vote that before long they might be working in tandem.

"Maybe it bodes well for a bigger, bipartisan energy bill," said Cantwell, the ranking minority member on the Energy Committee chaired by Murkowski. Cantwell opposes Keystone and is a climate hawk, but saw glimmers of hope in the way a pair of energy-conservation amendments were waved through on voice votes.

For her part, Murkowski marveled at how the Senate had brought to the floor 40 or so energy amendments during the Keystone voting frenzy—she'd lost count. "Boy, did we have a lot of ideas," she said.

"I look forward to working on even broader energy legislation in the next few months," Murkowski said.

But it's probably wishful thinking to believe that this vote, in which nine Democrats joined every Republican present on final passage of the bill, ushered in an era of bipartisan cooperation. After all, the House and the Senate both passed Keystone bills many times before without anyone breaking out in Kumbaya.

President Obama is going to veto this bill, and so far neither the House nor the Senate has yet to muster the two-thirds majority needed for Congress to override him.

Asked by reporters what pipeline advocates would do if Obama vetoed the bill, Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota, its author, said "we would try to most likely attach it to other energy legislation."

So, what's more likely in store is a gigantic contest of wills—not just a running battle over Keystone, but over energy policy and its implications for global warming.

Deep Divides

The deep divides over energy were in evidence in some of the amendments that the Senate turned aside. I don't mean the showboat amendments about whether climate change is real, and what causes it; I mean the real legislative chutes and ladders. If the Congress ever turns to a substantive bipartisan energy bill, it is going to have to deal with some of the issues that surfaced briefly in the Keystone debate—only to get resubmerged.

Murkowski offered one of the most far-reaching amendments, but despite her clout it won only 50 votes. (Sixty votes were needed to approve any amendment to the bill.) Designed to slap back at Obama for his recent maneuver to protect a section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from development, Murkowski's amendment would have stripped away protections from millions of acres of federal land that are being managed as wilderness.

Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, got 53 votes for an amendment that would have expedited exports of liquefied natural gas. Similar legislation recently passed the House and is under consideration by Murkowski's committee; the vote on the Cruz amendment is a sign of significant support, but the bill is not a shoo-in. In any event, the collapse of oil and gas prices has significantly undermined the market for exporting LNG.

Cruz withdrew an even more controversial amendment to allow the export of crude oil, an issue that is likely to be back before Congress soon.

One especially important debate over fossil fuels was never heard.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont wanted debate on an amendment that said to avoid the worst damage from climate change, it is imperative to move away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy sources. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia offered an alternative vision that said it is critical to research cleaner ways of burning fossil fuels. In Murkowski's committee, the dispute was tabled  on grounds that it would be debated on the floor. But on the floor, Sanders's amendment was tabled again, and Manchin's alternative never came up. So there was no opportunity to debate, and no progress toward consensus.

Don't Rock the Boat

Nothing in the Keystone debate suggests there's a burgeoning bipartisan resolution on any fundamental energy issue (except, perhaps, that efficiency is good), let alone on the biggest climate question of all—whether most fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground, as scientists increasingly advise.

Instead, as senators raised one hot-button amendment after another, it was clear how differently each side views America's energy future.

From the left came proposals to extend the wind power tax credit, offer 15-percent rebates for solar panels on 10 million roofs, and establish a renewable electricity standard, to mention just a few.

From the right came a demand that regulators stop trying to save the lesser prairie chicken, a threatened bird that roosts in the oil and gas patch.

Whether offered by Republicans or Democrats, anything even moderately controversial was defeated.

It might have been, a "freewheeling debate," as Murkowski called it, but it was hardly the kind of horse-trading that in the past has led to broad, bipartisan energy policy bills like the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

A bipartisan amendment did draw 59 votes for permanently locking in funds for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is financed by revenues from outer continental shelf drilling leases. The long-standing program, cherished by state and local officials, as well as outdoors enthusiasts, has been hanging by a fiscal thread.

And there it still hangs, because the unsung rule in the Senate's Keystone debate was, "sit down, you're rocking the boat." Approving any important amendment would have complicated Congress's campaign to swiftly push through the Keystone bill, since the House and Senate must pass identical bills before sending any legislation to the White House.

That's what led to the curious case of a senator voting against his own amendment.

Hoeven had carefully crafted an amendment acknowledging that climate change existed and that human activities had something to do with it, but left unsaid whether the human role was significant. The amendment, part of the Senate's symbolic jockeying for position on climate science, was meant to provide shelter for Republicans who did not want to be nailed down as climate deniers.

The problem was that enough Republicans liked the formula that the Hoeven amendment was in danger of passing.

So Hoeven, its sponsor, voted against it. It fell one vote short of 60, and was defeated.

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