Why this could be make-or-break week for Keystone XL pipeline

A decision on the Keystone XL pipeline will likely be delayed until after the November elections unless a bipartisan group of senators succeeds in passing a bill this week.

By , Staff writer

Senators who support the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry oil from Canada to the US Gulf coast see this week as their best shot at forcing a decision to go forward with construction. If they can pass a bill, the Republican-controlled House would likely follow suit. Then the question would be whether the president – who once again recently put off a decision on the controversial pipeline – would veto it.

But passing a bill through the Senate is by no means assured. Here’s a look at the factors involved:

A vote could be imminent. This week, senators are expected to consider a bipartisan Keystone bill introduced by Sens. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana and John Hoeven (R) of North Dakota – both energy states. The bill has broad backing – all 45 Republicans and 11 Democrats. But it needs four more Democrats to overcome a filibuster from liberals opposed to the pipeline on environmental grounds. In addition, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada could block the Keystone bill as payback if Republicans insist on attaching certain amendments to an energy efficiency bill on the docket Tuesday.

Recommended: What the Keystone XL pipeline would mean for the US

Pressure is mounting. Groans went up from pipeline supporters when the White House in April announced yet another delay on whether to build – after more than five years of debate. The stated reason for the delay is that the State Department, which is reviewing the pipeline because it crosses an international border, has 2.5 million public comments to wade through and a related lawsuit in Nebraska to wait out. That likely means no decision before the midterm elections. But vulnerable Senate Democrats such as Senator Landrieu, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, are no longer willing to patiently tap their toe, waiting for the president. “It is time to stop studying and start building,” she says.

About those elections. Republicans have pulled ahead of Democrats in Pew Research's new generic poll, with 47 percent of respondents saying they would vote for the GOP candidate in their district while 43 percent said they would vote for the Democrat. That's a change from two months ago when Democrats were favored. Generic polls have some predictive value when determining which way the electorate is leaning heading into an election, and with the majority of American supporting Keystone, that is a motivator for some Senate Democrats in energy-producing states as well as those in close races.

Republicans, too, could benefit from a legislative win to offset the Democratic claim that they're only about blocking legislation.

Supporters from both parties tout Keystone as a plus for jobs and energy security. At the high end, some estimates suggest that the pipeline could create 42,000 jobs during the next two years. Last year, a filibuster-proof 62 senators voted for Keystone. But that was a nonbinding “sense of the Senate.” The Landrieu-Hoeven bill would be a binding provision.

Potential potholes. Republicans could insist on amendments to the energy efficiency bill, including one that would roll back Environmental Protection Agency regulations relating to carbon emissions from power plants. Senior Democrats consider that a killer amendment.

There’s also the question of whether Congress could muster a two-thirds majority needed to override a veto – if Keystone gets to President Obama's desk. But some believe the president would be foolish to veto – especially if that could hurt Senate Democrats. Republicans need to pick up six seats this November to take over the Senate, and Mr. Obama will not want to risk losing the Senate and, essentially, the rest of his term.

Other analysts point out that Keystone has become more political than factually consequential. It might not produce the jobs initially promised, with the pipeline operator itself, TransCanada, estimating just 9,000 jobs. And in January, a State Department review said that the pipeline would not impose an environmental threat.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia, who favors building the pipeline, said on Sunday: “We don't want to usurp anyone's power, but if it gives the White House some protection from the environmental community coming after them, sooner or later you've got to give to the will of the people.”

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