Bill to approve Keystone XL advances in Senate

WASHINGTON — A key Senate committee voted 12-10 Wednesday to endorse legislation that would force approval of Keystone XL, a mostly symbolic action that will do little to put the pipeline in the ground but could help the panel’s Democratic chairwoman in her re-election bid.

The legislation, sponsored by Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., aims to end a six-year battle over TransCanada Corp.’s proposed pipeline, which would connect Alberta with the oil hub in Cushing, Oklahoma, and give Canadian crude a new route to Gulf Coast refineries.

But this is likely the high-water mark for the bill. A previous effort to negotiate a Senate vote on a similar measure collapsed, and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is not likely to launch floor debate on the new version.

More work ahead

“The real challenge, as we know, is getting an actual vote on the Senate floor, where we have seen these bills languish before,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “We’ve got a lot more work to do.”

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Both Republican James Risch of Idaho and Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan denounced the heated politics encircling Keystone and the bill to approve it. Stabenow said they were “over the top.”

“This is very political,” Risch said, directing his comments at Landrieu. “I want to commend you for having this hearing today, but we all know this isn’t going anywhere.”

Some panel Republicans derided the action as politically motivated, given Landrieu’s desire to highlight her work promoting the pipeline and other oil industry priorities ahead of the November election. Landrieu’s top Republican challenger, Rep. Bill Cassidy, has accused the senator of not doing enough to get the border-crossing pipeline permitted.

Political theater

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., cast the committee’s action as a show vote. “This vote seems more like a cheerleading exercise than a meaningful effort to get Keystone built,” he said.

Landrieu called the characterization “disappointing,” and insisted she and other Keystone supporters were working honestly to advance the project. “There was no popcorn and Coca-Cola handed out before today’s meeting,” she said dryly.

The bill was approved under mostly party lines, with only Landrieu and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., breaking ranks to support it.

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., whose own tough re-election fight is being dogged by oil and gas issues, voted against the legislation.

Forcing approval

The three-page bill would apply specifically to TransCanada’s May 4, 2012 application to the State Department seeking a presidential permit to build the project, along with any potential changes to the pipeline’s proposed route through Nebraska.

The legislation would deem previous environmental analysis by the State Department as fulfilling statutory requirements for such study. And it would force any litigation over the pipeline and related cross-border facilities into a Washington, D.C.-based federal appeals court.

Landrieu cited ongoing fighting in Iraq and at least one fallen refinery in that major oil-producing country as evidence the U.S. needs the pipeline to deepen its energy trade relationship with Canada.

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“Are we going to forge alliances with Canada or Mexico,” she asked, “or are we going to keep our alliances with the Mideast, which cost us a lot more than money in the bank?”

Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., both said they were worried the bill would set a dangerous precedent by effectively usurping a review process established by a 2004 executive order.

“It takes away from the process that the president has established at the State Department and makes a decision based on NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act) and, basically, I think, court-shops,” Cantwell said.

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