U.S. Senate debates Keystone XL before milestone vote on pipeline bill

The U.S. Senate is poised to vote for the first time on the Keystone XL pipeline this evening — a milestone in a drawn-out political dogfight that has dragged on for years.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate is poised to vote for the first time on the Keystone XL pipeline this evening — a milestone in a drawn-out political dogfight that has dragged on for years.

Pipeline supporters need 60 votes to avoid prolonged filibustering on the bill and they’re closer than they’ve ever been. It’s not clear, though, that they have either the numbers or the crucial presidential support required to sign a bill into law.

Mary Landrieu conceded that she didn’t know what would happen. The pipeline proponent from Louisiana said it’s been years since there’s been such last-minute uncertainty over how members will vote.

The Democratic senator is in danger of losing her seat, and she’s been pushing colleagues for a vote before she faces a runoff election next month in her oil-refining state.

“What is everyone upset about? We’ve been building pipelines for a long, long time — and we need to build this one,” said Landrieu, who is a co-sponsor of the bill.

The pipeline was approved last week for the ninth time by the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, but it faces a tougher test in the Senate, which is still controlled by Democrats until a new session begins next year.

The Senate’s Democratic leadership had never allowed a vote before today. It apparently relented in a long-shot bid to save Landrieu’s seat, relinquishing the floor for a six-hour debate and vote expected around 6:15 p.m. ET.

The debate looked like a battle of duelling charts.

As they delivered speeches, members for the project stood next to maps showing all the other pipelines on the continent and flow-charts showing how long the Keystone XL project had been delayed.

A main project opponent stood next to a poster that said, “Misery Follows Tar Sands.” California’s Barbara Boxer also showed pictures of oil-linked pollution, and linked the toxins in oil to a litany of ailments ranging from cancer to asthma.

“What does XL stand for?… For me, it’s Extra-Lethal,” Boxer said, showing pictures of a dark sky over a Texas refinery.

“This is what it looks like in Port Arthur, Tex. And this is what the kids have to put up with. Here is a playground, in a low-income community… We will have to bear the burdens of the refining. The filth in the air. The petcoke in our cities — as we see the products being exported to other countries… This trail of misery should not be put upon the American people.”

The debate also featured duelling donors.

The string of speakers who led off the debate happened to be the top recipients of cash from pro- and anti-oil constituencies in U.S. federal politics — where donations from companies and special interests remain legal.

On the pro-pipeline side, Landrieu was the No. 3 recipient in donations from the oil-and-gas sector among all 535 members of the U.S. Congress in the last election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a pro-transparency group that tabulates known corporate donations. The man who launched the debate, top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell, was the No. 4 recipient.

On the opposing side, Boxer was the No. 2 listed recipient of alternative-energy donations in her last Senate election campaign. The only member who received more that year was top Senate Democrat Harry Reid — who until now was responsible for blocking a Keystone vote.

The project’s tougher hurdle will be the desk of U.S. President Barack Obama, who is widely expected to veto the legislation, which would essentially short-circuit the White House’s own environmental review process.

Keystone XL, a political football almost since its inception six years ago, would transport bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Politics suggest today’s vote will be anything but definitive.

A Nebraska court decision on the pipeline route is expected in the new year and the administration says it won’t release its regulatory review until after the verdict is in.

Those developments and a new Congress will open the way for a final round of political horse-trading early next year.

Keystone XL is listed as a top priority of the incoming, Republican-dominated Senate. There’s speculation Obama might insist on a political concession from his rivals — perhaps an infrastructure bill — in exchange for him approving Keystone.

The Republicans already sound prepared to revisit the issue after the holidays.

McConnell promised that if the bill doesn’t pass this week, he’ll bring it back for a vote after he’s sworn in as the new leader of a Republican-dominated Congress, in January.

“Keystone XL is just common sense. It’s a shovel-ready jobs project that would help thousands of Americans find work, it would increase our supply of North American energy, and it would do all that with minimal net climate impact,” said the incoming Senate leader.

“That’s why the American people support it, that’s why Republicans support it, and that’s why so many rank-and-file Democrats support it too.”

Canada came up a few times during the debate.

Boxer described meeting people who live near the Alberta oilsands and listening to their stories about the environmental damage they’ve witnessed. The bill’s original sponsor, on the other hand, touted a list of benefits.

One of those benefits is geopolitical, said Republican John Hoeven.

“It’s about national security by helping us build energy security in this country with our closest friend and ally — Canada,” Hoeven said. “We’re working together with Canada so we don’t have to get Venezuela, or the Middle East, or other parts of the world.”

Hoeven’s biggest donor, according to the Center for Responsive Politics: the oil and gas sector.

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