Landrieu backs bill to force pipeline approval

A bill to require President Barack Obama to approve the stalled Keystone XL pipeline cleared a U.S. Senate committee Wednesday, but Republicans, who generally support the project, denounced the move as a political stunt by committee Chairwoman Mary Landrieu, D-La.

“This vote seems more like a cheerleading exercise than a meaningful attempt to get the Keystone pipeline built,” U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, said, before joining the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s nine other minority Republicans and Democrats Landrieu and Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, on the winning side of the 12-10 outcome.

But Landrieu criticized Barrasso for making political points — something he also did in a Monday appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, characterizing the committee’s consideration of the Keystone bill as a “show vote.”

“There was no popcorn and Coca-Cola handed out today here, and there were no tickets sold to today’s meeting,” Landrieu said in her opening remarks.

The committee-approved bill, sponsored by Landrieu and John Hoeven, R-North Dakota, would clear the way for completion of the final, northern section of pipeline, which would link Canadian tar-sands oilfields to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

The committee’s decision advances the measure toward the Senate floor, and Landrieu said she will push for a vote there, but she may be playing a losing hand.

The project has been a flashpoint between environmentalists and oil-industry allies. Keystone supporters say it would create jobs and strengthen the nation’s energy infrastructure. Opponents say it represents a step backward in terms of reducing carbon emissions, especially as it would transport relatively “dirty” oil from tar sands in Alberta, Canada.

Because the pipeline crosses an international border, the power to approve or reject it currently rests with the White House, which has put off a decision for years. A further delay was announced by the Obama Administration in April because of a legal squabble in the Nebraska state courts over the pipeline’s route.

“The Keystone pipeline will allow the United States to import oil from a close ally, Canada, instead of nations like Iraq and Venezuela,” Landrieu said. She alluded to the disruption of Iraqi oil production by the conflict there and to a vote by the Canadian parliament Tuesday to approve a pipeline from Alberta to the Canadian Pacific, which potentially would help deliver tar-sands oil to the Asian market without U.S. participation.

But Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, said the issue transcends the fate of one pipeline and goes to greatest threat ever to the earth: climate change. He asked committee members to meet that challenge of combating climate change. “If we do not do that, the future of our planet, in terms of our habitability of it, and what we leave our children and grandchildren, is in doubt,” he said.

Even before the committee passed the bill, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge, echoed Barrasso’s televised remarks. Cassidy is the leading Republican challenger this fall to the re-election of Landrieu, who is high on the Republicans’ hit list as they strive to take over the U.S. Senate.

But for now, their 45 members are a minority in the 100-seat Senate. And that means the flow of legislation on the Senate floor is controlled by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada — and that includes the Keystone bill.

“We all know this isn’t gong anywhere, because Harry Reid isn’t going to let us vote on it,” Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, said in the committee meeting.

Keystone has emerged as a salient issue in the Senate campaign in Louisiana, despite the agreement on its merits between Cassidy and Landrieu. Cassidy says Landrieu’s failure to win Senate approval of the pipeline demonstrates that her claims to wield great influence as energy committee chair ring hollow. Landrieu points to actions like the Wednesday committee vote as evidence of her prowess, which she says will accrue to the benefit of Louisiana should she be re-elected.

Last month, Reid maneuvered to prevent Republicans from attaching a Keystone-greenlight amendment to a broadly popular energy-efficiency bill. Republicans then blocked the underlying bill, which under Senate rules needed 60 votes to advance past a threatened filibuster.

Reid had earlier said that if the Republicans went along with the energy-efficiency bill, he would allow a vote on the stand-alone Keystone bill the committee approved Wednesday. Even if he does that now, the bill could be filibustered by its Democratic opponents, meaning that, again, 60 votes would be required to end debate and advance it — and Landrieu said after the committee meeting that Keystone supporters are still a few votes short of 60.

And even if passed, the bill could be vetoed by Obama. It would take 67 votes in the Senate to override a veto.

A State Department report in January undercut the arguments on both sides of the Keystone debate.

The report said that although building the pipeline would support 42,000 jobs directly and indirectly (including 4,000 temporary construction jobs), the overall total would drop to just 50 jobs once the pipeline is completed in two years.

But the report also said the environmental impact of the pipeline would be negligible, primarily because the oil likely will be brought to market by some other means (and ultimately burned) even if the Keystone pipeline is not built.

Also Monday, the committee acted on another politically lively item, approving Obama’s nominations of two members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Not so controversial was the nomination of Cheryl LaFleur, now the acting commission chairwoman, to another term on the agency, which exercises authority over a broad array of subjects, including electricity sales and rates, hydroelectric power, natural-gas pricing and pipeline transmission.

More troubling, to Republicans, was the president’s other choice: Norman Bay, the target of a Wall Street Journal op-ed that said he does not play fair in his current role as head of FERC investigations of allegedly illegal activity by energy companies.

Sharpening the dispute is Obama’s intent to name Bay FERC chairman once his nomination is confirmed.

Senate negotiators worked out a deal under which LaFleur would continue running the commission for nine more months. The committee approved Bay in a vote largely along party lines and LaFleur overwhelmingly. Both can be confirmed with 50 votes in the full Senate.

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