The Senate passed a bill approving construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline on Thursday, setting up a showdown with President Barack Obama, who has promised to veto the measure.
Thursday’s vote culminated six years of intense debate over the proposed 1,179-mile pipeline, designed to ship Canadian oil sands crude to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
The Senate passed the measure 62-36, with nine Democrats joining all Republicans in voting in favor.
An almost identical bill already passed the House of Representatives earlier this month, so the measure will go to Obama as soon as the Senate and House work out final wording.
The White House reiterated this week that the president plans to veto the measure, with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest saying that “our position on the Keystone legislation is well known.”
The $8 billion pipeline has become America’s noisiest fight over jobs and the environment, a political line in the sand that’s come to symbolize the debate over the economy and climate change.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the pipeline has been studied for over six years and would “support thousands of good American jobs.”
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., called the Senate action a farce.
“The media circus surrounding the Super Bowl has nothing on this overinflated Senate debate on Canadian export pipeline legislation that will never be signed into law,” Markey said.
Democrats voting in favor were Michael Bennet of Colorado, Tom Carper of Delaware, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana and Mark Warner of Virginia.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has been out this week on campaign engagements, missed the vote. So did Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who is recovering from surgery.
The debate over the pipeline has raised questions about what the project is and what it would mean:
Q: What is the Keystone XL pipeline?
A: The proposed Keystone XL is designed to ship as much as 830,000 barrels a day, mostly from the Canadian oil sands in Alberta. The southern leg of the pipeline, which runs 487 miles from Cushing, Okla., to refineries in Texas, is already built.
Q: Why is Obama going to veto the bill?
A: The White House said Obama will veto the bill because it would force approval of the pipeline before the State Department finishes a review of whether the project is in the national interest. Obama downplays the economic benefits of the pipeline but has not said whether he would approve the project once the State Department completes its work.
It’s not clear how much longer the review will take, but the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies have until Monday to give the State Department their views on the pipeline. The State Department is doing the review because the pipeline would cross the border with Canada.
Q: Why is Keystone XL so controversial?
A: The thick Alberta crude, known in its natural state as bitumen, creates more planet-warming gases than other sources of oil. The State Department, in its environmental review, estimated that it produces 17 percent more carbon emissions than average sources of oil used in America and up to 10 percent more than other heavy oil coming from Venezuela and Mexico.
Keystone opponents also are alarmed at the difficulty of cleaning up spills of Canadian oil sands crude, pointing to a 2010 pipeline spill into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, where the heavy oil sank to the bottom. Cleanup took more than four years and cost more than $1 billion.
Q: How many jobs would the pipeline create?
A: The State Department figures 3,900 construction jobs as the pipeline is being built (and also suggested that with direct and indirect reverberation of construction spending throughout the economy, the equivalent of 42,000 temporary jobs could be supported).
The State Department estimated there would be 35 permanent jobs.
Q: What did the State Department say about the environmental impact?
A: The State Department concluded the pipeline would have minimal impact on global warming, finding that, even without Keystone, the oil sands would still be exploited and taken to market by rail or other pipelines. “Approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands,” according to the State Department review.
Indeed, the oil companies got tired of the six-year wait for Keystone approval and have increasingly been shipping crude by rail. However, the State Department estimated that if oil prices remain below $75 a barrel for an extended period of time (prices have plummeted to less than $45 a barrel) the Keystone pipeline might be needed for development of the Canadian oil sands after all, since it is more expensive to ship the oil by rail than by pipeline.
Q: Wait, isn’t there a worldwide glut of oil? Is Keystone needed, or even viable?
A: Markets have changed dramatically since the Canadian pipeline firm TransCanada proposed the pipeline in 2005 and applied for permission to build it in 2008. U.S. oil production has soared in the meantime, helping create a global oversupply that’s driven oil prices down by more than 50 percent since June.
TransCanada asserts, though, that the pipeline is still needed to meet long-term forecasts of oil demand, and that there’s plenty of interest from oil producers.
Q: Would the oil be exported or used in the United States?
A: That’s depends on whom you believe. The United States increasingly exports refined petroleum products such as diesel, heating fuel and gasoline from the same Gulf Coast refineries where Keystone oil would go. And Canadian oil isn’t covered by the law forbidding exports of unrefined American crude, and so it could be sent from U.S. ports if the Commerce Department gave a license to do so.
However, the State Department concluded in its economic analysis of the project that it is unlikely the Keystone oil would be primarily exported.