The Cable

Keystone Ruling Sets Up Showdown Between White House and Congress

The controversial Keystone pipeline had been in legal limbo, giving Obama a way out of a six-year headache. But a Nebraska court has thrown that hot potato right back in his lap.


A Nebraska court threw out a lawsuit challenging the proposed route for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, overturning a lower court ruling and setting up an oily showdown between the Republican-controlled Congress and the White House.

The Nebraska ruling means that the 2,148-mile long pipeline has a legal green light to proceed, more than six years after TransCanada first started trying to build it. The ruling, which overturned a lower-court check to the pipeline’s route in February 2014, removes the last legal barrier to approval of the controversial project; the U.S. State Department has already said that the pipeline project would not have major environmental implications.

When the GOP took over Congress in the last midterm elections, the Republican leadership made Keystone a top priority. Both chambers are close to passing a bill that would essentially sidestep the State Department’s authority to approve or kill the pipeline, meant to carry oil from the tar sands patch of Alberta down to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

President Barack Obama pledged to veto the bill authorizing the long-delayed $7 billion pipeline. The House is set to approve a bill authorizing it today, sending it to the Senate where it’s likely to pass quickly. However, Republicans plan on staging a lengthy debate to remind the American public of the White House’s opposition to the pipeline.

“President Obama is out of excuses for deciding whether or not to allow thousands of Americans to get back to work,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.), said in a statement. (The pipeline will create a few thousand temporary construction jobs. It will create 35 full-time jobs.)

“Today’s court decision wipes out President Obama’s last excuse,” added Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the new chair of the Senate energy committee. “He’s had six years to approve a project that will increase U.S. energy supplies and create closer ties with our nearest ally and neighbor, and he’s refused to act. Regardless of whatever new excuse he may come up with, Congress is moving forward.”

If the Senate passes the bill, it would not only put the White House at odds with Republicans. It also would pit Obama against nine Democrats who support the bill. The bill also has the support of major players in the U.S. energy industry and many in organized labor.

“President Obama has no more excuses left to delay or deny the Keystone XL pipeline,” American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard said in a statement.

The ruling also puts Secretary of State John Kerry in a tight spot. Nominally, the State Department has the final say on the project, since it crosses an international border. At climate talks in Peru last month, Kerry pressured the world to act to cut carbon emissions, saying that no country should have a free pass when it comes to improving the environment.

But approving a new pipeline specifically meant to carry Canadian oil sands crude–a sludgy, dirty type of crude oil that emits more greenhouse gases in its production than regular oil–would severely undercut his green arguments. Indeed, Kerry and Obama are facing plenty of pressure from environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which have for years made fighting the pipeline the centerpiece of their activism.

By itself, Keystone isn’t that important to the U.S. energy sector. Most of the oil it would carry would come from Canada; a small fraction would come from North Dakota. The crude would be shipped for refining on the Gulf Coast. But in the six years that Keystone has been on pause, crude shipments by railroad have become an important piece of the nation’s energy infrastructure. What’s more, TransCanada itself is also building another pipeline to eastern Canada in order to refine and export oil on the Atlantic Coast, making Keystone less urgent.

Photo Credit: Alex Wong/Staff

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