BY SEAN COCKERHAM
McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
WASHINGTON – The Keystone XL Pipeline was victorious Friday in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Nebraska Supreme Court, as a showdown looms between Congress and President Barack Obama over whether to approve the project.
The six-year congressional obsession over the oil pipeline is nearing a climax. It’s become the nation’s biggest battle over jobs and the environment, and even though changes in global energy markets have lessened the importance of the pipeline, it remains a political line in the sand.
Congress elevated authorizing Keystone XL to the first item on its agenda this year after the Republican takeover of the Senate. The Senate expects to join the House soon in passing a bill to authorize construction of the pipeline, but Obama promises a veto.
Republicans see the pipeline as an opportunity to show that they can lead regardless of the president, while congressional Democrats who oppose the project see it as a chance to demonstrate their unity and ability to coalesce as an effective opposition party.
There doesn’t appear to be enough support for Keystone in Congress to muster the two-thirds vote needed to override the president’s promised veto. The House passed the bill Friday 266-153, with only 28 Democrats in favor, an outcome that falls short of the two-thirds threshold.
Just one Republican voted against the bill, Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, who voted “present.” Amash said he supported Keystone but opposed any bill to benefit a single company, in this case TransCanada Corp., the Canadian firm that proposes to construct the pipeline.
The 1,179-mile Keystone XL is designed to ship up to 830,000 barrels a day, mostly from the Canadian oil sands, to refineries in Texas.
This is the 10th time the House has approved Keystone, but with Republicans now controlling the Senate as well as the House, the GOP has the ability to force Obama’s hand on the issue. Republican leaders pointed to the Nebraska Supreme Court ruling as more pressure on the president.
“Today’s court decision wipes out President Obama’s last excuse,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the Senate Energy Committee. “Regardless of whatever new excuse he may come up with, Congress is moving forward.”
The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday upheld a 2012 state law that allowed then-Gov. Dave Heineman to bypass the state Public Service Commission and approve the pipeline’s route through Nebraska. The White House has cited uncertainty over the case as a reason to veto the congressional bill.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Friday that Obama still planned a veto, regardless of the ruling. He said the president was awaiting a State Department decision on whether Keystone was in the national interest before deciding whether to OK the pipeline.
“The president believes that the process should unfold at the State Department and that any legislative end run around that process is misguided, and he will veto that bill,” Schultz said on Air Force One as Obama traveled to Tennessee to promote an education program.
The State Department downplayed the environmental impact of the pipeline but halted its review in April, saying the Nebraska court case had thrown the route into question.
The State Department plans to resume the review in the wake of the court ruling but it would give no time line for when it would be finished. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki was vague in response to questions Friday, saying only that federal agencies will be given “a sufficient and reasonable time” to comment on the project before Secretary of State John Kerry makes a decision.
In the meantime, the Senate plans to take up its bill to authorize the Keystone pipeline Monday. The Senate debate might go on for weeks, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has promised to allow both parties the chance to offer amendments.
No amendments were allowed in the House on Friday as the debate fell along familiar lines. Republicans said the project would create thousands of construction jobs and help the country lessen imports of Middle Eastern oil while bolstering ties with Canada.
“An overwhelming majority of Americans support this job-creating energy project, and President Obama ought to respect their will and stop standing in the way,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Democrats countered that just 35 of the jobs expected from the pipeline would be permanent and the pipeline would increase development of the Canadian oil sands. Tapping the thick Alberta crude produces more planet-warming gases than conventional sources of oil, and it’s harder to clean up when spilled.
“Tar sands are among the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive fossil fuels,” said Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the House Energy Committee.
Much has changed in the six years since Keystone was first proposed. U.S. oil production has skyrocketed, helping to create a worldwide petroleum glut that’s driven oil prices down by more than half since June and threatening the viability of new Canadian oil sands projects.
Oil companies also got tired of waiting for Keystone to be approved and increasingly turned to rail to ship crude to market as an alternative.
Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., said both sides had hyped the Keystone issue out of proportion to reality.
“The debate over Keystone has become a symbolic issue. Come on, just admit it,” he said. “It’s clear. Let’s admit it.”