President Obama on Tuesday sided firmly with environmentalists in vetoing a bill that would approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a move that sparked a bipartisan backlash on Capitol Hill and deepened a rift between the administration and key Democratic allies in organized labor.
The White House, which weeks ago said the president would block the measure, formally notified Congress of the veto Tuesday afternoon. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the Senate will try to override the veto no later than Tuesday, though it doesn’t appear the chamber can muster the two-thirds vote needed.
The veto is the president’s first since Republicans took full control of Congress in January. It is the third of Mr. Obama’s presidency.
The veto delighted environmental groups that have tried to paint Keystone as central to the president’s legacy on climate change. The veto, those groups say, is proof that Mr. Obama shares their belief that Keystone would cause irreparable harm to the environment and is not in the best interest of the nation.
Although it was expected, the veto led to anger and frustration on Capitol Hill and across the energy industry, among labor unions that believe the pipeline is a desperately needed job creator, and even in the Canadian government.
In a message to the Senate, the president said he was blocking the bill because it would circumvent the normal procedures by which major infrastructure projects are approved.
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“The presidential power to veto legislation is one I take seriously. But I also take seriously my responsibility to the American people,” Mr. Obama said. “And because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest — including our national security, safety and environment — it has earned my veto.”
The White House maintains that the State Department must be able to finish its work reviewing the pipeline without interference from Congress. The department still is determining whether Keystone — which would transport more than 800,000 barrels of oil each day from Alberta through the U.S. heartland to refineries on the Gulf Coast — is in the national interest.
The project has been proposed by TransCanada Corp. and requires presidential approval because it would cross an international boundary.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that the veto is not the final word on the pipeline and that Mr. Obama ultimately could approve it but only after State Department studies are complete.
That explanation did little to quiet critics who believe the president wielded his veto pen for no other reason but to please his environmentalist base.
“President Obama has rejected our attempt to work together. His veto is overtly political. He can no longer hide behind talk that he wants to work with Congress while vetoing a bipartisan bill that will create 40,000 jobs in order to appease the radical left wing of his party,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican.
The 40,000 jobs figure cited by Mr. McCarthy comes directly from a State Department environmental review of Keystone, which also found that the project will not significantly increase global greenhouse gas emissions because the Canadian oil will be extracted and burned somewhere and by someone, regardless of whether the pipeline is built.
Although the president has cited Keystone’s environmental impact as the key factor in his decision-making process, Democratic Party allies in the labor movement say the focus should be on the pipeline’s potential to create tens of thousands of jobs.
“Given that the administration has done everything it can to delay and block the creation of good construction careers on the Keystone XL pipeline, the veto can be described with two words — disgustingly predictable,” said Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America.
It is unclear when the State Department will complete its final review of the project and make a recommendation to the president on whether Keystone is in the national interest. The process had been on hold pending a Nebraska court case challenging Keystone’s route through the state.
That case was resolved last month when the Nebraska Supreme Court upheld the pipeline’s planned path.
Even as the State Department continues its work, environmental groups were heartened by the veto and said their public relations efforts had a real effect on Mr. Obama.
“This veto is conclusive proof that activism works. After four years of rallies, marches, sit-ins and civil disobedience, we’re thrilled to see President Obama take an important first step by vetoing this love letter to Big Oil,” said May Boeve, executive director of the environmental group 350.org.
Some Democratic lawmakers share those sentiments.
“This veto tells the world that our nation takes seriously the planetary crisis of global warming and that we will not support legislation that would let a Canadian oil company ship some of the dirtiest oil on the planet across the United States,” said Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent and self-identified socialist who caucuses with Democrats.
But within minutes of the president’s veto, other Democrats declared that the would support Mr. McConnell’s veto override effort.
“When our own State Department review shows that this oil is coming out of the ground, it’s only a question of how, then the decision to be made is this — what is the safest way to move it to market? Pipelines are better than barges or trains. That’s common sense, and I will vote to override this veto,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat.
However, Republicans have majorities of only 54-46 in the Senate and 245-188 in the House, meaning at least 13 Democratic senators and 44 Democratic representatives would have to break party discipline to get the needed two-thirds override majorities.
Although significant defections are anticipated, those kinds of numbers are not. Nine Democrats in the Senate and 28 in the House voted to pass the bill, so supporters would need to have about 20 Democrats vote to override their own party’s president on an issue that they didn’t support on the merits.
The furor over Keystone has extended beyond Capitol Hill and may affect the U.S. relationship with Canada. The Canadian government argues that the pipeline would deliver economic benefits and increased energy security to both nations.
Top Canadian officials seemed to brush off the president’s veto and confidently declared that Keystone would be built whether Mr. Obama likes it or not.
“This is not a debate between Canada and the U.S.; it’s a debate between the president and the American people, who are supportive of the project. It is not a question of if this project will be approved; it is a matter of when,” said Greg Rickford, Canada’s minister of natural resources.
“We will continue to strongly advocate for this job-creating project. Keystone XL will create jobs for Canadian and American workers and strengthen energy security in North America,” he said.