- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2014

Congress is on the cusp of approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline, but President Obama has signaled he remains adamantly opposed to any move that would cut him out of the permitting process, leaving it an open question whether this week’s upcoming vote is anything more than a political exercise.

Mr. Obama, speaking to reporters during a trip to Asia, did not say whether he would veto the bill if it reaches his desk, and there’s no guarantee it will even get there. Vote-counters said they were within a vote of the 60 needed to pass in the final Senate showdown on Tuesday.

But the House took the first step on Friday, clearing the bill on a 252-161 vote that saw 31 Democrats join with Republicans in backing the controversial pipeline.

“The majority of Americans know this is the right thing to do, so the Congress, through this bill, will lead where the president has refused,” said Rep. Bill Shuster, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Keystone has been trapped in the permitting process at the federal level for years, awaiting a final decision by the State Department, which must approve it because the pipeline would cross the international boundary to deliver Canadian crude to the U.S. for refinement and shipping out of the Gulf of Mexico.

Mr. Obama has refused to speed up the decision-making, and on Friday, speaking during a trip in Asia, sounded no more enthusiastic about the project now.

“Understand what this project is. 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,” Mr. Obama said. “That doesn’t have an impact on U.S. gas prices.”

Mr. Obama pleaded with lawmakers to leave him in control of the permitting process, saying he must decide whether it will spew too many greenhouse gases.

The House bill would short-circuit his decision-making and grant approval for the project, accepting the current route proposed to the State Department and to Nebraska, where local officials and courts are still trying to hammer out some permitting issues of their own.

Until last week’s elections there was little chance of the Keystone bill moving through the Senate, where Democratic leaders had bottled it up in order to keep Mr. Obama from having to face a tough veto decision.

Democrats, though, lost eight Senate seats last week, with a ninth — Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana — facing a runoff next month.

Ms. Landrieu has made building the pipeline a key test of her own legislative abilities as chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. As soon as Congress reconvened she took to the Senate floor and demanded a vote on her plan, daring her fellow Democrats to block her. They didn’t.

Seeing the logjam breaking, House Republicans quickly organized another vote of their own — on a bill written by Rep. Bill Cassidy, the Louisiana Republican who is trying to unseat Ms. Landrieu in the runoff election.

Under the rules Ms. Landrieu laid out, the Senate will vote on her version, but it is Mr. Cassidy’s bill that will go to the president if senators can overcome a filibuster.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat who opposes the bill, told CNN’s “State of the Union” program this weekend that the measure had 59 votes of support as of late last week, and supporters were feverishly working the phones to try to win the key 60th vote.

Democrats questioned the studies showing building the pipeline would produce tens of thousands of jobs, and doubted whether the oil would reduce the price Americans pay at the pump for gasoline.

“The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is a terrible deal for America,” said Rep. Henry Waxman of California, ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “We get all the risks while the oil companies reap the rewards.”

Those on both sides of the debate say the actual amount of oil from the pipeline would amount to a small fraction of the world supply, and if the U.S. doesn’t allow a pipeline Canadian officials have signaled it would likely be routed to their west coast, where it could be shipped across the Pacific. The Cato Institute said the amount of oil that would flow through the pipeline would “add less than a hundredth of a degree to whatever the world’s temperatures would be otherwise.

But the political significance of the vote dwarfs the greenhouse gas impacts.

Environmental groups have turned stopping the pipeline into their chief legislative priority, sparking a rift with some labor unions who see it as a source of good jobs and barometer of the country’s economic health.

The fight even extends to the language both sides use to describe the source of the oil in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin in Alberta.

Opponents such as Mr. Waxman label it “tar sands,” invoking the more sinister-sounding name that derives from the tarlike appearance of the sand, clay and bitumen that are being processed. Keystone backers like Mr. Cassidy, however, call it “oil sands,” adopting the Alberta government’s preferred term that highlights the usefulness of the end product after refinement.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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