Elections

Republicans’ to-do list: Pass the Keystone pipeline

John McCullough holds up his sign protesting the plan to build an oil pipeline from Canada to Texas, called the Keystone XL pipeline, in San Francisco, California, April 3, 2013.
John McCullough holds up his sign protesting the plan to build an oil pipeline from Canada to Texas, called the Keystone XL pipeline, in San Francisco, California, April 3, 2013. San Jose Mercury News/MCT

There are likely enough votes in the Senate to approve the Keystone XL pipeline after the sweeping Republican success in Tuesday’s election, an outcome that could decide the fate of one the biggest debates in decades over jobs and the environment.

There now appear to be 61 votes in favor of approving Keystone, including those of several Democrats, enough to overcome a filibuster by opponents. While it’s not enough to overcome a veto by President Barack Obama, congressional approval would put huge pressure on Obama as he weighs climate change concerns against charges that he’s blowing a chance for the economy and energy development.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, who’s been the leader of the GOP in the Senate and now is expected to be the new majority leader, said Keystone will be a top priority once the party takes control in January.

“The Keystone pipeline will be voted on the floor of the Senate, something the current majority has been avoiding for literally years,” the Kentucky Republican said on the campaign trail.

McConnell reiterated his intentions Wednesday, saying, “The employment figures connected with Keystone are stunning, if we would just get going.”

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives already has passed legislation to approve the pipeline and is expected to do so again, paving the way for Senate action.

Obama would risk blowback if he vetoed the Keystone approval. Polls show a significant majority of Americans support construction of the pipeline.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus said Tuesday that he doubts Obama would veto it.

“I actually think the president will sign the bill on the Keystone pipeline because I think the pressure, he’s going to be boxed in on that, and I think it’s going to happen,” Priebus said in an appearance on MSNBC.

If Obama does decide to veto pipeline approval, the Republicans could attempt to get enough votes to override the veto by making deals to get more Democrats on board and including it as part of other legislation that members of Congress believe must pass.

Kevin Book, managing director of ClearView Energy Partners, suggested Wednesday the Obama administration might go ahead and approve the pipeline before the Republicans take power in January in order to “rob the GOP of an early-session victory lap.”

“Or, less cynically, as an olive branch to the new Republican leadership,” Book said in a research note.

The Obama administration has delayed making a decision on the pipeline, most recently citing the need to wait for a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling on the route. A court decision is expected later this year. In the meantime the issue sits with Obama’s State Department, which needs to decide whether the pipeline is in the national interest because it crosses the border with Canada.

A State Department environmental review downplayed the environmental effects of the pipeline.

Obama said at a Wednesday press conference that he wants to let the State Department finish its work evaluating the pipeline. He also said he wants to be assured that the project will actually create jobs and contribute to the lowering of gasoline prices.

“And is it going to be, on net, something that doesn’t increase climate change that we’re going to have to grapple with?” Obama asked. “There’s a pending case before a Nebraska judge about some of the siting. The process is moving forward. And I’m just going to gather up the facts.”

Obama also said the American energy sector is already booming, and “so Keystone, I just consider one small aspect of a broader trend.”

The 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline would bring crude oil from the Canadian oil sands in Alberta to American refineries on the Gulf Coast.

Plans for the pipeline are fiercely opposed by environmentalists, because tapping the thick Alberta crude would produce more planet-warming gases than conventional oil. Environmental groups said they would press Obama to veto approval of the pipeline to fulfill his pledge to combat climate change.

The White House threatened to veto a previous congressional attempt to demand approval of Keystone, saying it would interfere with the State Department’s process of determining whether construction of the pipeline would be good for the country.

During the long delay over the Keystone pipeline, the energy industry has already found a solution that Obama can’t veto: rail.

Canadian crude is increasingly shipped by rail, and there’s more oil from all sources moving by rail in the United States than the pipeline would carry.

But falling oil prices might change the calculation, at least according to the State Department’s analysis of Keystone – which suggested that if oil prices fall to $75 a barrel and stay there, the pipeline might be needed for tar sands development, since rail is more expensive.

The U.S. benchmark price closed at $78.93 on Wednesday.

The head of TransCanada, the Canadian company seeking to build the pipeline, said after the election results became clear Wednesday that the pipeline is a “great example of an issue where both parties can work together to create jobs and enhance energy security for the United States.”

Prior to Tuesday’s elections, there were 57 Keystone supporters in the Senate, including a dozen Democrats. Project backers picked up a pair of votes Tuesday when Democratic Sen. Mark Udall lost in Colorado to Republican Cory Gardner and Republican Joni Ernst won the race to fill the seat of retiring Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin.

Republican victories in West Virginia and South Dakota appear to put the total of Keystone supporters at 61. The pipeline vote could be among the easiest for the Republican agenda.

The agenda also includes repealing a 2.3 percent excise tax on medical devices. Obama’s veto power and Democratic filibusters, however, could limit expected GOP attempts to target the Affordable Care Act and roll back regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.

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