Will Keystone Pipeline Approval Be the First Test of New Congress?

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

With the makeup of Congress taking a dramatic shift after this most recent election, leadership in the Senate is going to change as well, with Republicans filling seats once held by Democratic senators. The Senate Majority Leadership, which will go to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in all likelihood, has so far gotten a great deal of attention, but it isn’t the only position change that will have important consequences.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) will be taking lead on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and with backing from her fellow Republican Sen. Mary Landrieu never had, any changes in energy policy will be particularly noticeable.

What will Murkowski’s first priorities be?

Murkowski’s first efforts as head of the Committee will likely be both local and national. Locally, there’s the road through an Alaskan federal wildlife refuge that she’s in favor of and that her new position will likely help her push forward on in opposition to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

On the national level, her intentions are predictable, and actually similar to her predecessor’s, but while Landrieu failed time and time again to pass legislation approving the Keystone XL Pipeline and other energy initiatives, Murkowski may succeed. McConnell spoke with Time on “Some examples of things that we’re very likely to be voting on” and listed “approving the Keystone XL pipeline” as just one likely to be brought up.

Why moving forward might be a bad thing

The issue with the pipeline is, and has always been, a matter of balancing the environmental effects with the economic and energy advantages. The pipeline’s importance, and the importance of environmentally sound policy was highlighted with particular clarity in a report from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Published early November, the report is severe and dire, stating that “recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history,” and that the impact of these changes are already being felt. The report discusses negative effects being felt everywhere form the atmosphere to oceans, and the need for better understanding of pros and cons when looking at methods to cut back on emissions and climate change causing activities.

“Increasing efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change imply an increasing complexity of interactions, particularly at the intersection among water, energy, land use, and biodiversity, but tools to understand and manage these interactions remain limited,” reads the report, listing “energy efficiency and cleaner energy sources” as well as shrinking emissions and pollutants as examples of mitigation efforts. The gist of this is that while it describes some of the damage as “irreversible” without actually being able to take the CO2 out of the atmosphere, some of them can be avoided with quick action and controls in place, but these controls have costs.

The effectiveness of some energy industry policies (one could even argue all) — including the Keystone XL Pipeline — is usually controversial, with different groups arguing for different environmental outcomes. While some say that the Keystone XL might have detrimental effects and that for the sake of reducing environmental damage, it should be avoided, others argue that by not building and utilizing the pipeline the U.S. would open doors for other less clean systems and energy forms. It ultimately ends up being a back and forth on whether the economic advantage is worth whatever measure of environmental damage would result — and this is usually disputed or uncertain.

High emissions, and using and depending on forms of energy with high emissions ultimately boost the “magnitudes of warming” and “increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts for people, species, and ecosystems.” That means things like the higher greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands extraction for the pipeline have very real effects the U.S. needs to consider. It’s simply a matter of deciding which side of the argument has more weight when it comes to Keystone specifically.

Murkowski’s stance

In June, Murkowski said, “The jobs, economic activity, and energy security that the Keystone XL pipeline will provide are clearly in the public interest. It’s time to move forward.”

At the time her comments were highly indicative of the political environment, adding, “Republicans are united on Keystone XL. We will work to advance this for the good of the country, but the Democratic majority leader is the only person who can bring it up for a vote before the full Senate. The ball is now in his court.” Now the ball is in Murkowski’s court, and it’s fairly clear what she plans to do.

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