On Thursday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest suggested to reporters that if Congress passed a bill approving the controversial northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, the President’s advisers would recommend he veto it. On Friday, the President himself said the pipeline take Canadian oil and sell it “everywhere else.” The mystery of whether or not Obama would use his third veto ever to stop a congressionally-mandated pipeline approval became relevant much sooner than expected because Senate Democratic leaders agreed to allow a vote as early as next week.
The reason, theoretically, would be a symbolic attempt to underline the support that still-embattled Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has shown for the fossil fuel industry in order to boost her electoral prospects, a Senate Democratic aide told Bloomberg News. She faces a runoff election on December 6 after neither she nor her opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) cleared a majority of votes on November 4.
On Wednesday afternoon, just as the Senate began its post-midterm lame duck session, Landrieu went straight to the Senate floor to urge her colleagues to support her bill, the “Keystone XL Pipeline Approval Act.” It was not clear she and fellow sponsor Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) had enough votes to clear a filibuster threat, though Landrieu said “it is ready for a vote and we have the 60 votes to pass it.” Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) said he would vote for the bill, and Senators Coons, Nelson, Bennet, Warner, and Casey are likely to feel pressure from Landrieu and Republicans to give the bill enough support to break a filibuster. These senators voted for an amendment last year that attempted to give Congress authority to approve the pipeline.
The House Republican leadership raced a vote on Rep. Cassidy’s version of the bill through the legislative process for an initial vote on Thursday, hoping a vote for approval would boost his chances in the runoff election more than it would Landrieu’s. With Democratic House leaders urging members to vote “no,” the chamber passed it, albeit at the smallest margin (225–185) a Keystone vote’s received in the House. A final vote is scheduled for Friday at noon, and the Senate will likely vote at around 6:15 p.m. on Tuesday evening.
Senate Majority Leader (until January) Harry Reid has largely kept the Senate out of the Keystone XL approval debate because he was waiting for the State Department’s process to finish, but Tuesday’s planned vote comes straight from Landrieu.
Few people seem to think this is a sound strategy, for a host of reasons.
Not only will President Obama likely veto for procedural reasons, he thinks it’s a bad idea on substantive grounds. Normally when talking about Keystone, he repeats that Congress should wait for the process to be completed. But on Friday, he elaborated on his view of the utility of the pipeline project itself.
“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. It doesn’t have an impact on US gas prices,” President Obama told reporters in Myanmar at a press conference alongside Aung San Suu Kyi.
“If my Republican friends really want to focus on what’s good for the American people in terms of job creation and lower energy costs, we should be engaging in a conversation about what are we doing to produce even more homegrown energy? I’m happy to have that conversation.”
So the oil will be transported across America to refineries in Texas, to be sold abroad. It will also result in just 35 permanent jobs. And emit 51 coal plants’ worth of carbon pollution every year.
Even if the federal government greenlights the project, it likely can’t be built for a while because of unresolved legal issues over the pipeline’s route in Nebraska, and because the construction permit has lapsed in South Dakota. Bold Nebraska leader Jane Kleeb pointed out that even if President Obama were to sign the bill, “this pipeline can not be built anytime soon because it has no route in Nebraska and has no construction permit in South Dakota.”
Public support for the pipeline is dropping. While polls show a majority of Americans still support the pipeline, that support dropped 7 points, to 59 percent, since March of last year, according to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center. More Democrats now oppose the pipeline than support it. More concerning for Democrats in red states like Louisiana who need to win over independents, support of the pipeline by independents dropped more sharply, from 70 percent last year to 58 percent this year.
It also probably won’t work as a political tactic. “It’s really too little, too late,” G. Pearson Cross, a political scientist at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, told Reuters. “Doing this only when her job is in peril will be seen as not significant — or desperate.”
Even Landrieu’s allies think the vote will not matter. Josh Freed, the Clean Energy Program Director at Third Way, said that with both Cassidy and Landrieu touting bills that could pass, “I don’t think it’s going to make the difference either way in the Louisiana senate runoff race.” Landrieu is a former co-chair of the organization, and Freed said that “her presence in the Senate would help Senator Reid and others on a lot of issues.”
The League of Conservation Voters gives Landrieu a lifetime score of 51 percent, and while that isn’t high, Cassidy rated an 11 percent across his whole congressional career. Landrieu was instrumental in passing the RESTORE Act, which helped ensure that most of the funds from the BP spill would go to affected Gulf states like Louisiana.
RL Miller, founder of the political action committee Climate Hawks Vote, said “the vote doesn’t make any sense politically. Landrieu got 43% of the vote in the Nov. 4 election and one vote on KXL isn’t going to convince 7%+1 of Louisianans to vote for her.”
“Republicans have always been more anxious to blame Obama for thwarting their so-called jobs program than they have in actually creating the 35 Keystone jobs.”
While a Senate vote to approve the pipeline could take away from Cassidy’s claims that Landrieu doesn’t have enough clout, it ends up being a bit of a wash with Cassidy also getting his House vote. But does this make Landrieu’s runoff bid winnable?
“It’s going to be very difficult for Landrieu to win it, but Cassidy can lose it — it’s his race to lose if he gets complacent,” said Clancy Dubos, Louisiana political columnist and analyist for WWL-TV and the weekly alternative newspaper Gambit.
“I’m not sure it will persuade enough voters,” Brian Brox, political science professor at Tulane University, told the Christian Science Monitor. “Landrieu’s key to victory is an outstanding turnout among African-Americans. Keystone really isn’t going to affect their vote.”
Louisiana is second only to Texas in the number of oil refineries it possesses, and industry advocates wave around the estimate of a quarter-million Louisianans working in the energy sector. What they avoid talking about is the serious health impacts of living near refineries and petrochemical facilities.
“Sen. Landrieu is asking fellow Senators to vote for increased carbon pollution and risking our water,” said Bold Nebraska leader Jane Kleeb. “She is messing with our families livelihoods and it is unacceptable. Another vote on Keystone XL will not help Sen. Landrieu back in her home state.”
“Sen. Landrieu’s memory is short and she must not be talking to the fishermen who are still feeling economic loss because of the oil spill in their water. It does not matter what Congress does on Tuesday, they are playing politics with farmers and ranchers livelihoods all so they can cut a TV ad.”
Still, a Senate vote to approve the pipeline would likely have happened next year (and likely will again). Even the Republican Senators-elect that will be joining the world’s greatest deliberative body that do not vigorously deny the reality of mainstream climate science fervently support the Keystone pipeline.