Obama and Congress head for first confrontation over Keystone XL pipeline

The benefits of allowing the Keystone XL project to go forward far outweigh the costs that opponents have continued to cite over the years. The White House threatens to veto the bill.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Within hours of the new Congress being gaveled into session, House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R) of Texas moves forward with plans to advance legislation approving the embattled Keystone XL oil pipeline, at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 7, 2015. Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015.

As Republicans gear up for the beginning of the first time they’ve controlled both chambers of Congress since 2007, one legislative item at the top of the list will be an effort to push forward a bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Indeed, a bill to do just that was introduced in the House yesterday as H.R. 3, and the White House has already made clear that the president will veto the bill if it makes it to his desk:

WASHINGTON — The White House on Tuesday made it clear that President Obama would veto a bill authorizing construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, setting up an immediate clash with Republicans just as they assume control of Congress.

“The president threatening to veto the first bipartisan infrastructure bill of the new Congress must come as a shock to the American people who spoke loudly in November in favor of bipartisan accomplishments,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the new majority leader, said on Tuesday.

Mr. McConnell has vowed to make the Keystone bill the first measure that the new Congress sends to the president’s desk. The House is expected to pass the bill on Friday, and the Senate is expected to take up the measure next week.

For nearly four years, the Keystone pipeline has been a symbolic flash point in the political war between Republicans and Democrats over energy,climate change and jobs — even though many policy experts say the project’s impact in those areas will be small.

The legislation proposed by Republicans would take away Mr. Obama’s authority to make a decision on the pipeline, which the president has because the pipeline would cross an international border. But Mr. Obama has said he cannot make a decision until the State Department completes an environmental review, which has been held up until there is a verdict in a Nebraska court case over the route of the pipeline.

“I would not anticipate that the president would sign this legislation,” the White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, said on Tuesday. “There’s a well-established process that shouldn’t be changed by legislation.”

Mr. Obama’s veto would make the pipeline even more of a political issue. The 1,179-mile oil pipeline, which would carry 830,000 barrels of petroleum a day from the oil sands of boreal forests in western Canada to oil refineries and ports on the Gulf Coast, enjoys bipartisan support in Congress as well as with the public.

Six Senate Democrats have signed on to the Republican-sponsored bill, and a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in November found that 59 percent of Americans support the project. One of those senators, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, said he was “very upset, very surprised,” by the president’s threat to veto the bill. “I think it’s absolutely, totally ridiculous that they would do something like that in this period of time, when we’re just starting out,” he said.

But Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said he was “pretty confident” that Republicans would still not be able to muster the 67 votes necessary to override a presidential veto. As the Senate debates the bill over the coming weeks, Mr. Schumer said, Democrats will offer up amendments designed to highlight what they see as the project’s flaws.

If Mr. Obama does veto a bill, it will not stand as his last word on the pipeline’s construction. Nonetheless, environmentalists cheered Mr. Earnest’s announcement Tuesday as a sign that the president would eventually reject the pipeline.

“It’s becoming more clear by the day that President Obama rightly recognizes this dirty and dangerous tar sands pipeline is a bad deal for our country,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.

This isn’t the first legislative push we’ve seen for the Keystone pipeline, of course. Republicans made similar efforts several times after the 2010 elections, but because they only controlled the House, up until yesterday, those efforts largely died in the Senate. In November, after it was clear that the Democrats had lost control of the Senate but while her own seat still remained in a precarious balance, former Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana pushed a bill to authorize the pipeline in what was an obvious effort to save her own seat from near-certain defeat in the December runoff. At that point, of course, Democrats still controlled the Senate and the bill was unable to get even the requisite 60 votes to get past a cloture motion. Nonetheless, it was noted at the time that the bill received the votes of 14 Democrats, including nine Democrats who returned to office in the 114th Congress. This suggests that there are at least 64 votes in favor of the pipeline in the new Senate. It’s also clear that the bill to authorize the pipeline will easily pass the House on Friday. The question, of course, is whether there would be sufficient support in either chamber to override the president’s veto. In the Senate, that would mean finding an additional three Democrats to support the bill which, I suppose, is theoretically possible, although it’s hard to see from a distance who those three members might be at this point. In the House, though, Republicans would need to find 44 Democrats willing to break with their own party, and their president, on what is likely to be the first high profile confrontation between the president and the new Congress. In the immediate aftermath of the 2014 elections, there were many who speculated that the new Congress could have a veto-proof majority in favor of a Keystone XL bill if Republicans were able to add sufficient “sweeteners” to a bill to bring along enough Democratic votes in both chambers. Whether that can actually happen, of course, remains to be seen.

As for the policy itself, as I have said before, there seems to me to be very little reason for the pipeline itself to not be permitted to go forward. While the concerns of environmentalists are not to be dismissed lightly, the benefits of allowing the project to go forward far outweigh the costs that opponent have continued to cite over the years. Additionally, it has become clear to me that most of the risks that the opponents of the project have raised have been hysterically overstated.For one thing, transporting the oil via pipeline is both far safe and far less environmentally taxing than transporting it via train or tractor trailer. Additionally, encouraging further development of the shale oil production areas in North Dakota and across the border in Alberta, Canada, would further enhance energy independence for North America and strengthen our relationship with Canada. Additionally, while the studies disagree on the exact numbers, there’s no question that the pipeline would be a fantastic source of real economic stimulus for the states it runs through and for the nation as a whole. It could also potentially help promote additional oil shale exploration in the Upper Far West, something that has already brought astounding economic stimulus to North Dakota, which happens to have the lowest unemployment rate of any state in the nation. Adding all of this together, the decision to approve the pipeline seems like a no-brainer. Instead, the Obama Administration continues to dither and pander to the Democratic base on this issue. Can Congress finally take control of this project and force the president’s hand? It’s not clear yet, but it’s certainly worth a try.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.