Keystone pipeline: Does Louisiana Senate race finally give it a chance to pass?

Facing a December run-off to keep her seat, Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu has won the go-ahead to bring the controversial pipeline project to a vote, perhaps as soon as Friday.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu arrives for a closed conference meeting to conduct leadership elections for the next Congress on Capitol Hill Thursday.

The controversial fossil-fuel project known as the Keystone XL pipeline project is finally moving toward a Senate vote – and possible passage into law – thanks to an unusual turn of electoral events.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana is fighting to hold onto her seat in a run-off race against Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy.

She’s won the go-ahead to bring Keystone to the Senate floor, something that current majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada has until now refused to allow.

The effort gives Senator Landrieu an opportunity to show she’s not just for energy development but is actually getting some results – even though it’s not clear yet whether the measure will pass and whether President Obama would sign it.

The pipeline would bring oil extracted from Canadian tar sands down through the Great Plains to be refined and used in both US and export markets, the industry says. In polls, a majority of Americans support the pipeline, but environmentalists say the pipeline would contribute to climate change and put underground water supplies at risk.

President Obama has kept Keystone in limbo since the 2012 election, neither using his prerogative to approve it nor giving a final “no.” 

The number of known “yes” votes in the Senate is just a few shy of the 60 needed to avoid a filibuster. But with Landrieu cajoling colleagues for support and Democrats aware that, in any case, the incoming Senate in January will tilt more heavily Republican, it’s possible the measure might pass in a vote expected as soon as Friday.

The measure is known informally by the names of lead sponsors Landrieu and John Hoeven (R) of North Dakota. But it might just as well be called the Mary Landrieu Survival Act of 2014.

Landrieu faces long odds in the December run-off vote. The state has been shifting increasingly Republican. And when neither she nor Cassidy got the majority needed to win outright on Nov. 4, a key reason was that another Republican was siphoning votes away. This time, it will be a two-way race.

The incumbent is also struggling to match Cassidy’s advertising dollars, because Democrats nationwide already know they’ve lost control of the Senate for next session.

The Republican-led House supports Keystone, and is now rushing to pass its own bill in a vote expected Thursday. Cassidy is key sponsor – but to Landrieu, that’s not a problem. Whoever’s name is attached to the bill, she can rightfully claim to be a prime mover.

The Obama administration has hinted that a presidential veto may await if the House and Senate bills pass. “Our dim view of these kinds of proposals has not changed,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday.

Mr. Earnest added that a State Department review of the project still needs to be completed. That’s a step that administration critics say should have been finalized long ago.

Backers of the pipeline say it will create thousands of US jobs, at least during its construction phase. Groups like the US Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable have strongly supported it.

And some economists say the environmental critics ignore the fact that Canada’s oil industry will ship its product one way or another.

“Canadian oil is going to get to global markets one way or another,” University of Maryland economist Peter Morici says in an e-mailed commentary. “By denying the safest, most direct route, the oil will get there by rail and other pipeline projects that pose more, not fewer risks.”

If the Keystone vote fails in the Senate this month, the issue is likely to reappear next year. And its chance of passage should improve with a new Republican majority in the Senate.

That still leaves a crucial uncertainty question of a presidential veto. Public support for the pipeline might nudge Obama toward signing a bill. But that move would deeply disappoint many in the Democratic Party base.

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