A Presidential Clog in the Keystone Pipeline: Will Congress Be Drano?

keystone xxl

The Energy and Natural Resources Committee on the Senate voted in favor of pro-Keystone XL legislation this week, resulting in speculation on whether or not the Senate will hear a bill that could push past President Barack Obama’s hold up on the Keystone Oil Pipeline. Based on the hurdles the Senate would have to jump to get the initiative heard on the Senate floor, much less passed — not to mention the President’s likely veto of any effort that would get through — Congress likely won’t prove to be Drano to Obama’s clog. Congress is more like that mouthwash that changes the color of your plaque to make it easier to see, at least from the perspective of senators from energy industry states. The committee’s efforts are uniquely bipartisan given Washington’s general atmosphere, but with midterm elections coming up and the Keystone pipeline such a vital issue for key state economies, the effort to appear proactive, pro-energy, and bipartisan capable makes strategic sense.

Chair of the committee Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who introduced the legislation alongside Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), serves as an excellent example of this political dynamic. “The five studies that have been conducted, as required by law, are complete. It is time to stop studying and start building,” she said in discussion of the ENR Committee’s efforts, putting a tough face forward for voters.”We cannot lose this opportunity to create tens of thousands of jobs and $20 billion in economic activity. The legislation Senator Hoeven and I have introduced will green-light the construction of the pipeline immediately,” she said. Other senators, such as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell are calling the committee efforts a “political show vote.”

In an email correspondence with Bloomberg, McConnell was pessimistic on any future a bill might have, despite the bipartisan support seen in the committee; he voiced doubts on whether this stance would extend to a full Senate vote. “The question isn’t whether energy-state Democrats can support a Keystone bill in committee,” he said. “It’s whether or not they’ll continue to stand with their party and their leader in blocking the full Senate from voting on it, or whether they’ll stand up for jobs and demand a vote.”

For some, such as Landrieu whose state is not particularly Obama-friendly, this opposition is undoubtedly welcome, but others might be more hesitant to vote against their party on the Senate floor, especially while cognizant of environmental controversy and the likely hood that Obama would veto the bill. The Natural Resource Defense Council — whose leadership includes Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kans.), Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and Sen.Ted Cruz (R-Texas) — has been particularly negative about the committee’s work, attacking Landrieu specifically for having “no influence in the Senate.”

“A vote for Landrieu actually hurts pro-energy states like Louisiana,” said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for NRSC, according to Bloomberg. “This latest vote on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is all about politics and bad policy. Locking ourselves into a massive infrastructure to move the dirtiest oil on the planet for the next fifty years would greatly worsen carbon pollution — at a time when we’re facing growing and grievous costs wrought by climate change,” said Anthony Swift, attorney to NRDC.

Of course, not all members of the NRSC are as concerned with the environmental effects of the pipeline. Sen. Cruz for one, doesn’t seem to concur with Swift’s assessment of the pipeline. “If you’re a Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging Greenpeace activist, you should love the Keystone pipeline,” he said in February. “The Canadians are not going to leave the tar sands unmolested,” said Cruz, according to ABC, noting that if the oil isn’t taken in the U.S. it will go to China. “If your concern is the environment, the last thing you want to do is send that oil to China to be refined there, which will be far more damage to the environment than refining it in the U.S., where it would generate good, high paying jobs.”

Al Gore, former vice president and Nobel Peace Prize winner for his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, wrote a recent piece for Rolling Stone on the pipeline. In it, he describes the Keystone pipeline as “absurdly reckless” and praising President Obama for signaling that he is “likely to reject” the “proposal for the transport of oil form carbon intensive tar sands to be taken to market through the United States on its way to China, thus effectively limiting their exploitation.”

Landreiu and others in favor of the pipeline point often to the completed environmental assessment reports — Landreiu linking from her page to the U.S. Department of State’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). The report summarizes the environmental consequences on page 134, saying that after the FEIS “reviewed the environmental impacts and consequences of the original Keystone XL Project,’ it had “concluded that ‘[t]he analyses of potential impacts associated with construction and operation of the proposed Project suggest that there would be no significant impacts to most resources along the Project corridor.”

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