Senate vote today will launch weekslong energy, enviro debate 

Source: Manuel Quiñones, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, January 12, 2015

A Senate vote scheduled for this evening on whether to move forward with debating legislation to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada is expected to unleash weeks of congressional debate on a broad range of energy and environment issues.

With the a promise of regular order from new Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the 5:30 p.m. roll call will be followed by a flurry of amendments on issues like energy efficiency and climate change.

Republican leaders have been telling colleagues they will have plenty of opportunities in the coming months to debate priorities. But years of Democratic control means GOP members, who were used to having many of their ideas blocked by the old regime, are unlikely to be so patient.

On Friday, Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) urged colleagues to at least stick to energy issues. “We haven’t had a good robust debate on energy in a long while,” she said from the Senate floor. “We have waited far too long for our energy issues to be debated on the floor.”

Democrats who oppose KXL are planning to introduce a flurry of amendments of their own. But their goal is not necessarily to improve the legislation. They instead want to put Republicans on the record about controversial issues.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told a home-state radio station last week that the pipeline debate “has taken a life of its own” and is being used for politics. “I’m confident the president is going to veto it,” said Reid, “and good, I hope he does.” The White House issued a veto threat last week.

Despite McConnell’s promise of regular order and both sides gearing up for an extended discussion on KXL, Reid insisted that Republicans just want to ram the issue through Congress. “There are amendments that people are going to offer that they should,” he said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) plans to introduce an amendment to put the Senate on record recognizing humans’ impact on climate change and calling for moving away from fossil fuels. The idea already caused some fireworks during last week’s panel vote on the KXL bill (Greenwire, Jan. 8).

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is keen on another amendment to prevent the export of Canadian oil sands crude transported through KXL. Pipeline opponents also want producers of those oil sands to pay into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.

In a conference call Friday, Russ Girling, CEO of TransCanada Corp., the company looking to build KXL, sidestepped discussion of the upcoming debate. “We really try not to get involved in the political process,” he said.

But Girling said the amendment dealing with the oil spill fund affected producers rather than transporters like TransCanada. “That is up to the Congress of the United States. We really don’t have an opinion one way or another,” he said. “We are a transporter of that oil.”

TransCanada, however, has long tried to fight back claims that KXL is just a project to move Canadian oil through U.S. territory and then send it overseas. Instead, the company says it’s aiming to move oil, both Canadian and some American, to Gulf Coast refineries.

“Once in somebody else’s hands, they can do what they want with it,” said Girling about the refineries. “A pipeline isn’t the place to put those [export] restrictions.”

Are low oil prices killing KXL on their own?

For months, uncertainty surrounding litigation over the pipeline’s route through Nebraska threatened to upend the debate. But Friday’s state Supreme Court ruling there upholding the existing scheme has instead focused attention on the Obama administration.

KXL supporters say the White House no longer has Nebraska as an excuse for the State Department and then Obama to delay making a determination on KXL.

Pipeline critics are singing a similar tune. The president, they say, has enough information for an immediate rejection of the project. And they rallied outside the White House on Saturday to make their voice heard.

White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz was circumspect about the process. “This is a process that is still underway at the State Department,” he said Friday. “I don’t have any updates for you on that process.”

In a letter to Obama on Friday, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), one of the Senate’s climate hawks, reiterated doubts about the State Department’s final environmental impact statement, which found that Canadian oil sands production would likely continue with or without KXL.

“It uses a flawed frame of reference by assuming that business-as-usual growth in carbon pollution is acceptable,” Whitehouse wrote. “The pipeline fails the President’s climate test and is not in our national interest. I urge you to deny the project’s permit.”

Whitehouse cited Canadian Energy Research Institute assertions that higher prices are necessary to sustain new oil sands production, including the cheaper in-situ recovery, which involves using steam to free the oil.

Plus, the State Department review concluded that KXL could promote oil sands development with oil prices between $65 and $75 a barrel because it would be much cheaper than rail to transport.

In other words, critics say, KXL is either unnecessary or too polluting, now that oil prices are hovering at about $50 a barrel. “Over the past year,” wrote Whitehouse, “it has become more apparent that the extent of tar sands expansion — and the related carbon pollution — depends on whether Keystone XL is built.”

But Girling said Friday that such arguments were just part of the opposition effort to kill KXL. He said the company, which has other pipelines in the permitting process, has not lost any of KXL’s customers, and added that one project alone wouldn’t make a difference in production.

Vote count

Despite the partisan tone of the debate, KXL enjoys significant support from members of both parties. Friday’s 266-153 vote in the House included 28 Democrats voting “aye,” many of them either moderate lawmakers from energy states or those in tough re-election districts.

They included new Nebraska Democratic Rep. Brad Ashford, who defeated Republican Lee Terry last year, plus Reps. Rick Nolan of Minnesota, Sheila Jackson Lee and Henry Cuellar of Texas and Patrick Murphy of Florida.

In the Senate, KXL backers have the necessary votes to clear procedural hurdles — 60 sponsors to the legislation, including Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Mark Warner of Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jon Tester of Montana.

Democrats not on the legislation as co-sponsors but who may end up also voting for passage include Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Tom Carper of Rhode Island. All three voted for it in November.

The notable support from Democrats is, however, not enough to override a presidential veto. KXL proponents need 67 votes in the Senate and 290 in the House. So far, they are far from it.

“We will not override the president’s coming veto, and then we will move past this issue and towards a real debate about what Americans want,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) on “Fox News Sunday.” “An energy policy that includes growing good jobs, American innovation and infrastructure, energy independence and that doesn’t hurt our environment.”

Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), the legislation’s main sponsor in the Senate, responded, “To have the kind of energy plan, energy security for this country that we want, we need the infrastructure to go with it, and the environmental impact statement done by the Obama administration says no significant environmental impact.”

Such arguments will persist because if the president continues delaying a decision on KXL and goes through with his veto, the Republican-controlled Congress is likely to attach it to a spending bill or a broader energy package.

For now, KXL supporters would like to either send the president a clean KXL bill or one with changes that make it more attractive to the White House. But with an open amendment process, the result is far from certain.