CAPITOL HILL —
Two days after the United States and China announced a landmark accord to reduce both countries’ carbon emissions, Congress is preparing to vote on whether to construct a pipeline to transport Canadian oil to refineries in U.S. Gulf states.
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline has been on hold for more than five years but appears to be getting a boost from last week’s midterm elections that handed Republicans major gains in both houses of Congress.
The House of Representatives, which has voted several times for construction of the $5.3-billion pipeline, is voting Thursday and likely to approve it again. Speaker John Boehner said after the elections that the pipeline "will mean lower energy costs for families and more jobs for American workers.”
In the current Congress, majority Democrats in the Senate have blocked a vote. But With Republicans set to assume control of the chamber in January, Democrat Mary Landrieu from energy-rich Louisiana is pressing for a Senate vote as early as next week.
“It was time for us to come together, to put our partisanship aside, to break through the gridlock and get the job done,” Landrieu said.
Landrieu faces a runoff election in December. Her challenger is Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, who sponsored the House bill to approve Keystone.
“Building this pipeline creates 42,000 direct and indirect jobs, and has a negligible impact on the environment,” Cassidy said.
Leaks, pollution feared
Cassidy’s assertions are a matter of debate. Environmentalists say pipelines can leak, and the Keystone oil would be converted into fuel that would add to global greenhouse gases.
Because the pipeline would cross the U.S.-Canada border, the Obama administration’s review of the project falls under the purview of the State Department, which has withheld judgment on Keystone for several years. President Barack Obama has not ruled out the project but has voiced major reservations.
“Our energy strategy must be about more than just producing more oil," the president said. "It certainly has to be about more than building one pipeline. Our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”
This week, environmentalists hailed the U.S.-China emissions reduction accord as a major accomplishment that will facilitate a global pact on climate change. But that progress would be imperiled by approval of the Keystone pipeline, according to billionaire activist Tom Steyer, who contributes generously to the campaigns of pro-environment U.S. politicians.
“It is really important for the United States to take a leadership role," Steyer said. "And in order to do that, the administration and President Obama absolutely have to have all the credibility possible, so that when we go into negotiations with other countries, they understand that we are really serious about this [climate change]. If you want to lead, you have to walk the walk.”
Keystone has the backing of major U.S. industries and business groups, which argue that the project would spur economic growth and make America more energy-independent. They also argue that Canada will find a market for its oil one way or another — the only question is whether America profits from it.
Those arguments do not sway Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who notes that much of the Canadian oil, once refined, would be exported.
“We already export our young men and women to the Middle East so we can protect [oil] imports. We do not have self-sufficiency in oil. We import it. So this is a national security issue, an economic issue, a climate change issue.”
House approval of the Keystone pipeline is all but assured. In the Senate, 15 Democrats would have to join with Republicans for the measure to pass. On Wednesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest did not rule out a presidential veto if a bill approving the pipeline landed on Obama’s desk.