Washington — Despite a near-certain veto from Democratic President Barack Obama, the Republican-controlled Congress sent him a bill Wednesday to greenlight the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline.
As expected, the House easily approved the measure, which passed the Senate last month. But in both cases, the margin was short of the two-thirds approval needed to override a veto, and pipeline supporters have conceded Obama’s rejection likely will kill the legislation.
The pipeline, proposed six years ago to bring oil from the tar sands of Canada to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast, has long served as a flash point between environmentalists and energy-industry boosters. The U.S. House, under Republican control since 2010, has repeatedly approved pro-pipeline bills. But they died in the Senate, where Democrats held the majority until the 2014 elections put Republicans in charge in the session that started in January.
Opinion polls have shown broad popular support for the pipeline. Supporters of the project say it would create jobs and reduce American dependence on oil imported from unfriendly and unstable foreign countries outside North America. Opponents fear it would result in oil spills and increased carbon emissions from the burning of the “dirty” tar-sands oil.
The project has been stalled by Obama, whose agreement is required because the pipeline crosses an international border. He has said he wants to wait for completion of a State Department review before deciding on the project, although he has said he doesn’t think it will provide a lot of benefit for the United States. The legislation passed Wednesday would compel approval of the pipeline.
Fluctuating oil prices could play a role in whether the pipeline is built, even if it ultimately gets the blessing of the White House. Low prices threaten the economic justification for the project.
The project is estimated to create 42,000 temporary construction jobs, and 35-50 permanent jobs. The unfinished part of the pipeline is its northern leg, from Nebraska into Canada, and a third of the construction jobs would be along that route. No part of the pipeline crosses Louisiana.
All six House members from Louisiana joined the majority in the 270-152 vote, including Cedric Richmond, of New Orleans, one of 29 Democrats to vote yes. Only one House Republican voted no.
“There’s nothing this pipeline is going to do to further threaten the environment,” Republican U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, of Baton Rouge, said on the House floor in urging a yes vote.
“The president for years has adopted an all-of-the-above energy strategy,” Graves said. “This pipeline fits that strategy.”
And in a news conference after the vote, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, of Jefferson, said, “Mr. President, sign this bill. Let’s create these 40,000 American jobs and let’s increase America’s energy security.”
The fight over Keystone figured prominently in the 2014 U.S. Senate race in Louisiana, although the pipeline will have little direct impact in the state and was supported by both candidates who met in the Dec. 6 runoff: Three-term incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican Bill Cassidy, who was Graves’ predecessor in the House. Cassidy defeated Landrieu, and his win contributed to the Republican gains in the Senate.
Although the 2014 elections gave Republicans a 54-46 majority in the Senate, they needed support from at least six Democrats to provide the Keystone bill a filibuster-proof majority. The final 62-36 margin sent the measure to the House.
In her campaign against Cassidy, Landrieu touted the influence she had gained in the Senate by virtue of her seniority — in particular, her appointment early last year as chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, with its oversight of the oil and gas industry central to the Louisiana economy. Landrieu is a longtime friend of the industry.
After taking over as chairwoman, Landrieu pushed a Keystone bill through the committee. But then-Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, did not move to schedule a floor vote on the bill, which most Democrats opposed. Cassidy argued Landrieu’s clout was meaningless so long as Democrats controlled the Senate.
After narrowly leading Cassidy in the Nov. 4 open primary in Louisiana, Landrieu successfully pushed for a floor vote on the bill in evident hopes of burnishing her record for the Dec. 6 runoff, which polls showed she was likely to lose. But she fell one vote short of the 60 needed in the Senate.
When Landrieu moved to bring a Keystone bill to the floor, the Republican-controlled House fast-tracked a similar measure by Cassidy and passed it. That bill died with the end of the 2013-14 Congress.