Keystone XL: first on a Republican Senate’s to-do list?

Approval of the Keystone XL pipeline could be a reality if Republicans take control of the Senate in the midterm elections. Keystone XL has bipartisan support in both chambers already, and a Republican Senate could force President Obama to either approve or veto the controversial project.

By , Staff writer

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    Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky stands with Republican Senators John Cornyn of Texas, John Thune of South Dakota, and John Barrasso of Wyoming. If McConnell's party wins control of the Senate in November, Congress would likely push oil and gas legislation, including Keystone XL approval.
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If Republicans capture the Senate in November’s midterm elections, it could be the moment oil and gas advocates on both sides of the aisle have been eagerly awaiting.

Issues like Keystone XL, crude oil exports, and liquefied natural gas exports have gained little traction in the current, divided Congress. Republicans in the House have been unable to collaborate with the Democratic Senate on energy legislation. Partisan cross-fire has even torpedoed legislation with bipartisan support, like the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill.

But that could change in November. With continued Republican control of the House all but assured, the only open question is the Senate. And there’s a real chance the Republicans could narrowly take the chamber, and start acting on energy issues alongside Republicans in the House.

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Those actions would likely have bipartisan support, which would make for low-hanging fruit that a Republican-led Congress could quickly bring to a vote. Many Democrats are already pushing for votes on energy matters like Keystone XL, hoping to win public support in a contested midterm election year.

“If [Democrats] narrowly lose, the president could well end up with a Keystone bill on his desk in early 2015,” says William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. “And then he would have to make an up-or-down decision.”

For years the Obama administration has delayed a decision on Keystone XL, which requires State Department approval. The president has pledged to approve the divisive pipeline only if it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution,” as he said in a speech last summer.

In February, the project hit another hurdle when a district court judge in Nebraska overturned the governor’s approval of the pipeline’s route through the state. The Nebraska Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments on the case in September, but a final decision likely won’t come until next year.  


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Environmentalists blast the proposed pipeline as a threat to water and wildlife – a project that will encourage even more climate-altering fossil fuel consumption. But the oil and gas industry touts Keystone XL’s potential to increase US energy security by increasing imports from Canada.

Keystone XL would carry 830,000 barrels of Alberta oil sands (or tar sands) and North Dakota tight oil to US Gulf Coast refineries every day. A State Department study earlier this year indicated it would result in a maximum of 27 million tons of additional carbon dioxide emissions, or possibly less. A study published Sunday in Nature Climate Change puts the figure four times higher – roughly 121 million tons. Either way, many observers call those figures a drop in the bucket.

“In the total scope of global emissions, 30 million tons isn’t much,” says Charles Ebinger, director of the Brookings’ Energy Security Initiative, in a telephone interview Monday.

Republicans in the House have passed a flurry of energy legislation this year and last, ranging from measures that would restrict the EPA’s regulatory authority, approve Keystone XL, and make drilling easier on public lands. And in the run up to the midterm elections, House Republicans are pushing the Senate for action on energy.

Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada “has refused to bring up so many common-sense measures that would most likely be easily passed with bipartisan support,” Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R) of Missouri said Monday, according to The Hill. “They include legislation approving construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and other bills supporting efforts to secure more energy for America.”

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources – chaired by Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana – has pushed for Keystone, but has been blocked by Mr. Reid.

“Republicans are united on Keystone XL,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska said in a June statement after the Senate Energy Committee passed legislation approving the pipeline. “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.”

Reid did give Republicans the opportunity to vote on Keystone XL earlier this year, on the condition that the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill passed. But Republicans balked and filibustered the bill, criticizing Reid’s refusal to allow Republicans to tack unrelated amendments onto the bill.

“They have held this bill hostage, this energy efficiency bill, as demand after demand has been met but even now they are still seeking a ransom,” Reid said when Republicans blocked Shaheen-Portman.

But if Republicans control Congress after the elections, they’ll have the support of some Democrats on their energy agenda – specifically Keystone XL.

“This has truly, strong bipartisan support in the Senate and in the House,” Senator Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia said of Keystone XL approval at a RealClearPolitics US energy forum in January. “And why the president and the administration [are] hunkered down and not moving forward is beyond my understanding.”

Of course, Obama still holds veto power, but blocking bipartisan legislation approved by both chambers of Congress would not be the most politically desirable option for a president.

Keystone XL is only the beginning, according to Mr. Ebinger. “It’s the same kind of debate we’re having on lifting the ban on crude oil exports,” Ebinger says.

The oil exports ban could also enter the political fray if Republicans win control of both chambers. Opponents of the ban – which was put in place for energy security purposes after the 1973 Arab oil embargo – say it is an anachronism in an era of new US energy wealth. But lifting the ban could raise domestic energy prices, supporters contend, and exacerbate the environmental impact of oil extraction.  

A similar back-and-forth is taking place over natural gas exports, part of a larger conversation to define US energy policy in an era of booming domestic oil and gas production, Ebinger says.

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