(Editors note: A previous version of this story misstated the tally on Wednesday's vote in favor of the Northern Route Approval Act. The House voted 241 to 175, not 223 to 194.)
The vote is one of many symbolic gestures by the GOP-controlled House gestures in favor of a project that would transport oil from Canadian oil sands to Gulf refineries. If the Senate doesn't block the so-called Northern Route Approval Act, President Obama will almost certainly veto it. The point is to raise the profile of an issue that is frequently edged out by the headline of the day.
Half the country has never heard of the Keystone XL pipeline, a new poll shows. The White House would prefer not to talk about it, and the State Department isn't rushing its assessment. The Washington press corp has its hands full with testimonies on Benghazi, the IRS, Justice Department subpoenas, and crises ad infinitum.
The pipeline has undergone five years of applications, articles, assessments, studies, comments, and debates. It has tested the patience of critics and supporters alike, as they try to sustain the public's attention.
"Republicans tried to make it an electoral issue in 2011 and 2012 – tying it to the cost of energy," said David Meyer, professor of sociology and political science at the University of California, Irvine, and author of "The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America." "Environmentalists are using it as a wedge to open up a discussion about climate change."
Neither side, Mr. Meyer added in a telephone interview, has had much success.
Fifty percent of Americans have never heard of the Keystone XL pipeline, according to a poll released Tuesday by Yale and George Mason universities. Looking at the glass half full, it might be impressive that half the country has heard of an obscure piece of energy infrastructure. But only 18 percent said they follow the issue closely.
Those are discouraging numbers for both sides of the debate, but supporters may take comfort that about two-thirds of those who have heard of the project believe it should be built.
Even if they haven't captivated the masses, both environmental groups and industry allies say they've mobilized significant and dedicated followings. More efforts are on the way.
The Canadian government recently launched a pro-Keystone website called "Go with Canada," that calls the country "America's best energy partner" and touts its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The site is part of the government's $16 million marketing campaign to promote Keystone XL, the Vancouver Observer reports.
A consortium of environmentalists has launched a site of its own, Summer Heat, to inspire protests and acts of civil disobedience against Keystone XL and the fossil fuel industry.
"[A]s the planet lurches past 400 parts per million concentrations of CO2, the moment has come, the moment to ask you to do hard, important, powerful things," wrote the organizers, which include environmentalist Bill McKibben of 350.org and Canadian journalist and activist Naomi Klein. "The last two weeks of July are, statistically, the hottest stretch of the year. This year we want to make them politically hot too."
That wouldn't be ideal for Mr. Obama, who would rather the issue fade away.
"He has a strong interest in keeping this a low-salient, low-profile issue because there’s a lot of potential for him to lose on this," Meyer said.
If he approves the pipeline, he upsets his core supporters, who say the project represents a ticking carbon time bomb. Blocking it would affront an ally to the north and bolster Republicans, who say Democrats are blocking an enormous boon to the economy.
It might explain why the administration is dropping few hints about the pipeline's fate and redirecting scrutiny to the State Department, which is currently undergoing its national interest assessment of the project.
In response to Wednesday's vote in the House, the White House issued a short policy statement opposing the Northern Route Approval Act.
"[T]he bill is unnecessary because the Department of State is working diligently to complete the permit decision process for the Keystone XL pipeline," it reads. "The bill prevents the thorough consideration of complex issues that could have serious security, safety, environmental, and other ramifications."