On Senate’s to-do list: Keystone, climate change, crude exports

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Monday formally launched debate on legislation to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline, with a procedural vote that also set the stage for weeks of arguments on climate change, crude exports and oil spills.

The chamber voted 63-32 to limit debate on a motion to proceed to the Keystone bill, surpassing a 60-vote threshold needed to shut off a potential filibuster on the measure but falling short of the 67 “aye” votes that would be needed to override a presidential veto.

Eleven Democrats crossed party lines to vote with the chamber’s Republicans in support of launching debate on the bill: Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Tom Carper of Delaware, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Angus King of Maine, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Tom Udall of New Mexico, Jon Tester of Montana and Mark Warner of Virginia.

Not all of them support the underlying legislation.

For instance, King said he plans to vote against the Keystone XL bill. “However, I believe there should be a full debate of the bill, including an open and fair amendment process,” he said.

The House of Representatives passed identical legislation on Friday.

Senators now plunge into a wide-ranging debate not just on the substance of the bill but on amendments, including some proposals designed to keep political pressure on lawmakers.

Democrats have already said they plan to offer amendments barring oil sent through Keystone XL from being exported and requiring TransCanada Corp. to use U.S. components to build the pipeline.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said she wants to ensure importers of the Canadian oil sands crude carried by Keystone XL are required to pay into an emergency spill trust fund, just like buyers of conventional crude. Under a 2011 Internal Revenue Service decision, the per-barrel tax that sends money flowing into that oil spill liability trust fund does not apply to bitumen from Canada’s oil sands.

And Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, could advance an amendment insisting that climate change is real, is caused by human activity and has already spurred devastating problems.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, promised to advance provisions from an energy efficiency bill he cosponsors with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.

Republicans also are expected to offer an amendment to repeal the nation’s renewable fuel standard law, which requires refiners to blend increasing amounts of ethanol and other biofuels into the nation’s gasoline supply.

Another possible amendment would end the nation’s longstanding ban on exporting crude.

“We’ll have an open floor debate on jobs, the middle class, infrastructure and energy, and at the end of this process, we’ll send a bipartisan jobs bill to the president,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “It may force the president to finally make a difficult choice between jobs and the middle class versus the demands of powerful special interests.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama would veto the legislation, saying it short-circuits an ongoing review by the State Department, which is tasked with determining whether the proposed border-crossing pipeline is in the national interest.

The State Department has already conducted environmental studies concluding that the $8 billion border-crossing pipeline would have little effect on climate change and the amount of bitumen harvested from Alberta, Canada’s oil sands, even though it would provide them a vital link to Gulf Coast refineries.

But the State Department’s national interest determination wraps in other factors, including economic concerns and national security considerations.

Calgary-based TransCanada, which has already built a 487-mile-long leg of the project that runs 487 miles from Cushing, Okla., to Nederland, Texas. But the border-crossing northern leg has been in varying stages of review since the company proposed it in 2006.

Environmentalists who oppose the project say it would unleash oil sands development and the greenhouse gases that come with it by providing a cheaper alternative to shipping crude by rail.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, warned that Keystone XL would further tether North America to fossil fuels, at a time when the world needs to be transitioning away from them.

“Our future is not in adding carbon pollution,” he said. “Our future is in innovating our way out of this problem . . . towards a clean energy economy. ”

Schatz said the open amendment process “will be an opportunity for the American public to see where members of the Senate stand on the facts of climate change.”

Keystone XL supporters said the time has come to permit the project.

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana, suggested that political concerns were standing in the way of “the largest ready-to-build infrastructure project in the United States.”

“What could possibly be the reason why the president remains intransigent on this particular issue?” Coats asked. “Because every other box has been checked, you have to come down to the inevitable conclusion that it’s all political, that an extreme environmental wing of the president’s own party is simply putting untold pressure on him apparently not to go forward with anything having to do with fossil fuels.”

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