Senate tees up votes on Keystone XL, exports, climate

WASHINGTON — The fate of the oil that flows through the Keystone XL pipeline and the source of the steel used to make it are set to be decided this week in the U.S. Senate.

The chamber is expected to vote on as many as three amendments to GOP-backed legislation to authorize the TransCanada Corp. pipeline on Tuesday, with more than four dozen other possibilities on the horizon.

Few are without controversy, and many are meant to send a message or put senators in a difficult spot, casting votes on such issues as protectionism, oil spills and climate change.

The first three amendments readied for floor action are:

  • A proposal from Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass. and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., that would bar oil transported through the Keystone XL pipeline — and any refined petroleum fuel products made from it — from being exported out of the United States. Waivers could be issued by presidents if they decide it is in the national interest.
  • An amendment by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., that would insist that iron, steel and manufactured goods used in the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline be produced inside the United States. An exception could be made if the material is not reasonably available or in satisfactory quality inside the United States, or if using U.S.-sourced supplies would boost the cost of the components by more than 25 percent.
  • A broad bipartisan measure from Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., designed to promote energy efficiency, with new voluntary initiatives aimed at encouraging commercial building owners and their tenants to pare power consumption, requirements for federal agencies to coordinate on energy saving information technologies and a mandate for some federally leased buildings to disclose data about energy usage. The amendment is a pared-down version of a broader Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill, trimmed to match a version that previously passed the House.

Supporters of the amendments on oil exports and American steel say they are necessary to ensure the 1,170-mile-long pipeline provides some value to the United States.

“We shouldn’t be giving this Canadian tar sands oil a tax free ride through the United States, and then allow it to be freely exported to other countries, even as we assume all of the risks to pay for tar sands oil spills in our country,” Markey said.

Pipeline backers say the project would already provide value to the United States in the form of construction jobs when it is built and by ensuring a supply of heavy crude to Gulf Coast refineries that would process it into gasoline and other petroleum products.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee who is managing the bill on the floor, signaled she opposes both proposals.

“As much as I support Buy-American and making sure that we receive the benefit of these jobs from creating these precedents, I’m concerned about the Congress setting a precedent here,” Murkowski said of the Franken amendment. “I think it puts us on a potentially pretty slippery slope: If we’re going to set the precedent here for Keystone XL, why wouldn’t we do it for other projects, wind turbines? Why not on our vehicles, on our autos? Why not everything?”

Related story: Cruz to push crude exports

Both Democrats and Republicans have advanced proposals designed to ensure the bitumen harvested from Canada’s oil sands — the hydrocarbon that would be diluted to flow through Keystone XL — is taxed on par with other crudes.

Under an Internal Revenue Service decision in 2011, bitumen is not subject to a 8-cent-per-barrel excise tax that feeds an oil spill liability trust fund that can be tapped when pipelines breach.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has proposed an amendment that would clarify that crude oil includes condensates (or “natural gasoline,” as it is sometimes known), synthetic petroleum, bitumen or bitumen mixtures and oil derived from kerogen-bearing sources.

At least three similar proposals have been advanced by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Sen. Joe Manchin, D-Ky., and Markey.

The Senate also is expected to take some kind of action on at least one of several proposals that assert — to varying degrees — that human activity causes or exacerbates climate change.

But no amendment is guaranteed an up-or-down vote, and Senate leaders will probably agree that 60 “aye” votes are necessary for a proposal to be adopted — the same threshold for cutting off extended debate in the chamber. Senators could cast votes on tabling amendments — whether to set them aside — instead of the substance of those proposals.

Senate Republicans have hinted that possible fate awaits the climate change amendments, providing a little bit of political cover for senators who oppose the measures. The tactic also could be used for other controversial amendments, including a proposal from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to lift the four-decades-old ban on crude exports.

It is unclear how long the chamber will devote to Keystone XL, though Senate leaders could move to bring debate to a close early next week.