The Senate’s narrow rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline Tuesday evening raised new doubts about whether the $8 billion project to send heavy crude oil from Canada south to the Gulf Coast will ever be completed – and dealt a potentially fatal blow to Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s prospects of retaining her seat.
Landrieu, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was counting on a victory to sway voters in her state. Polls before the Nov. 4 election showed Landrieu trailing her Republican challenger, Rep. Bill Cassidy, by five to eight percentage points. Landrieu sought to show constituents a willingness to bypass an unpopular president in order to win approval of a project popular in her home state.
But since last Friday, Landrieu and her chief co-sponsor, Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), had been one vote shy of a 60-vote super majority needed to break a filibuster and pass the legislation from the GOP-dominated House. Despite a flurry of lobbying of her Democratic colleagues, Landrieu came up one vote short on the final vote – 59 to 41.
She did win over lame duck Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, along with other Democrats who strongly endorsed the pipeline. But her hopes of pulling off a victory dimmed yesterday when Sen. Angus King of Maine, an Independent who has caucused with Senate Democrats, said he’d oppose it.
Even if the measure had squeaked by, it likely would have been a pyrrhic victory for Landrieu and her allies. Obama has long been skeptical and almost certainly would have vetoed the bill if it had reached his desk. He has said he wants a six-year-long evaluation of the application by the State Department to run its course before he decides.
But he’s been under enormous pressure from environmental groups to oppose the project. Obama criticized it during his Asia trip last week. “Understand what this project is,” he said. “It is providing the ability of Canada to pump their oil, send it through our land, down to the Gulf, where it will be sold everywhere else. That doesn't have an impact on U.S. gas prices.”
Last night’s vote clearly marked another milestone in the nearly six-year battle over TransCanada’s plans to transport oil squeezed from tar sands south to U.S. refineries and port facilities, including Texas and Louisiana. While the GOP-controlled House had made approving the pipeline a focus of its legislative agenda, Senate Democrats kept the legislation bottled up for years while the White House and the State Department slow-walked an environmental and economic impact review.
Oil extraction from tar sands is highly controversial. It takes vast amounts of energy and water and releases 14 to 20 percent more greenhouse gases than conventional drilling. Obama has repeatedly signaled concern about the environmental impacts – although it passed muster with the State Dept. in a detailed report.
Last January 31, the State Dept. issued a final environmental assessment – one that boosted the case for industry proponents. The report found the proposed 875-mile pipeline between Alberta, Canada and U.S. refineries along the Gulf Coast probably wouldn’t alter global greenhouse gas emissions.
But the Republicans’ tidal wave victory on Nov. 4, -- in which they picked up eight Democratic seats and now threaten to claim a ninth seat in Louisiana’s Dec. 6 runoff – blew away any residual Democratic resistance to a showdown vote on the Senate floor.
Shell-shocked Democratic leaders, including Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), overnight were willing to do just about anything to help the embattled Landrieu hang on – including mounting a direct challenge to Obama’s authority over the pipeline.
Both Landrieu and Cassidy enthusiastically supported the project, convinced it would be a boon to heavy crude refineries, construction contractors and other industries. Almost from the beginning, the tar sand industry has been pitching it as a national jobs generator and an important ticket to U.S. energy independence.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) gave Cassidy a leg up in pandering to home-state voters by quickly scheduling a vote for last Friday on Cassidy’s two-page pipeline authorization bill. For the ninth time, the GOP-controlled House voted to end-run the White House and authorize construction, 252 to 162.
But Landrieu and Hoeven were stuck with rounding up at least 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster in order to pass the bill. With all 45 current Senate Republicans in favor, Landrieu spent the past few days feverishly lobbying Democratic colleagues.
Senate Republicans, who can bring up the bill again early next year after they take control of the Senate, seemed to delight in Landrieu’s dilemma. “If it was so important, why didn’t she do it before the election?” said Don Stewart, press secretary to soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “Most people can see through that.”
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), just back from a tough reelection campaign of his own, said Tuesday on the floor: “How convenient that we now finally have an opportunity to at least vote on this bill just before an election in Louisiana. But if this bill passes today, will the president sign it into law, or will the president simply continue to straddle the pipeline until after the run-off election in Louisiana? Seems to me the president owes an answer.”
Regardless of yesterday’s action, the pipeline debate will continue for a long time to come.
Industry proponents had boasted that the Keystone XL would create “hundreds of thousands” of jobs, while some in the media speculated it might bring as many as a million jobs. Later, oil companies, the American Petroleum Institute, many politicians and a few unions who urged the State Department to approve the pipeline framed Keystone XL as an economic game changer.
They claimed it would be the source of 20,000 “direct jobs” – meaning primarily construction workers –and 108,000 “indirect jobs,” meaning anything from suppliers to restaurants.
Environmental groups that have battled the project for years say the economic benefit has been vastly overblown, and that once the pipeline is built, there would be fewer than 50 permanent jobs connected with it in the U.S. and Canada.
A few things about the project aren’t in dispute. The 36-inch diameter pipe would be laid along 1,179 miles stretching from Alberta to Nebraska, where it would connect to an existing section of the Keystone line. About 875 miles of it would be within the U.S. At a rate of up to 830,000 barrels of oil per day, it would carry oil mined from the Alberta tar sands, a particularly dirty kind of crude oil, to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
On the jobs question, the State Dept.’s analysis found the pipeline would “support” up to 42,100 jobs during the one to two years of construction. That includes actual constructions jobs and associated logistics and supply, as well as businesses serving construction workers. The number of actual construction jobs – the well-paid positions – is unclear. TransCanada has estimated it will hire 9,000 workers. The State Dept.’s analysis suggests it could be as low at 1,900 per year over two years.
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