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Senate passes Keystone XL bill with amendments, Obama expected to veto legislation

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate has passed its Keystone XL bill, but an anticipated veto is expected to rupture the pipeline project. Senators voted 62-36 on the bill Thursday to bypass the Obama administration's review of the Keystone XL, five sho...

A depot used to store pipes for Transcanada Corp's planned Keystone XL oil pipeline is seen in Gascoyne, North Dakota November 14, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen



WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate has passed its Keystone XL bill, but an anticipated veto is expected to rupture the pipeline project.

Senators voted 62-36 on the bill Thursday to bypass the Obama administration's review of the Keystone XL, five short of the number needed to overturn a potential rejection by the president. All Republicans present voted for the bill, as did nine Democrats.

Republicans made good on a pledge to pass the line that would transport approximately 800,000 barrels of oil across the lower half of North America to refineries on the Gulf Coast each day. The pipeline, which has been delayed for more than six years, would begin in Alberta and skirt North Dakota, picking up 100,000 Bakken barrels.


"This is about energy, jobs, economic activity, national security, and building the right kind of infrastructure we need to achieve all of these things," U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in a statement after the vote. "The will of the American people and Congress is clear."

The project, which is backed by TransCanada Corp., has faced more than six years of delay due to environmental studies and lawsuits. President Barack Obama currently has the final say on the project but has said he would delay his decision until the State Department has presented its assessment on the pipeline. The department told other federal agencies they have until Feb. 2 to conclude their assessment of the project.

"There has been a lot of talk about respecting the process," U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said Thursday during a news conference in Washington. "I respect process. I think it is important that you do things with a certain amount of due diligence. But six years to site a pipeline is not a process that is working."



Approving Keystone XL has been the top priority of the new Republican Senate majority. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Keystone XL would be good for the middle class and "pump billions" of dollars into the economy. While the project would create thousands of temporary construction jobs, a State Department report said fewer than 40 permanent workers would operate Keystone XL, once built.

Obama has raised questions about the number of jobs Keystone XL would create and said the project would mainly benefit the company that wants to build it.

"After nearly a month of debate on this doomed bill, Republican leadership has succeeded in showcasing their denial of climate science and dutiful devotion to oil money," said Luisa Abbot Galvao, a climate and energy associate for Friends of the Earth. "Their employers -- American taxpayers -- have legitimate grounds to wonder why the Senate just spent an entire month of the legislative year delivering favors to the Koch brothers and a Canadian oil company. That kind of behavior would get regular middle-class Americans fired from their jobs."


Environmental groups and protesters also contend that the project could be a risk for the land it crosses, as well as lead to increased carbon emissions that contribute to air pollution.

The concerns were highlighted by two recent spills in the Bakken. A pipeline rupture spilled nearly 3 million gallons of brine near Blacktail Creek north of Williston, N.D., this month, also affecting the Little Muddy and Missouri rivers. The spill was the largest of its kind in the current boom's history.

In eastern Montana, a pipeline leaked oil into the Yellowstone River, affecting the water supply for the town of Glendive, Mont., and threatening drinking for downstream communities, including Williston.

"With these pipelines, it's never a matter of if; it's a matter of when," Galvao said, adding the existing Keystone pipeline ruptured 14 years in its first year of operation. "TransCanada has an awful safety record.

"Not even groundbreaking technology is enough to prevent accidents from happening."

Hoeven, who co-sponsored the bill, still has confidence in Keystone XL's safety guards, adding the majority of Americans have consistently supported the project. Both North Dakota senators reiterated that the spills from the pipeline near Glendive were part of aging infrastructure.

"Keystone is going to be state-of-the-art," Heitkamp said. "This is gonna be the best-constructed pipeline coming into the United States."

Debate on the bill lasted most of the month with senators engaging in an open process espoused by McConnell to debate dozens of amendments. Only a handful of the amendments passed, including one from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, D-Ark., the chair of the energy committee, which would require companies transporting crude from Canada's oil sand fields would have to contribute to an oil spill fund.


Heitkamp also offered several amendments to the bill, including an amendment that would give the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration resources and personnel to monitor and regulate the transportation of crude oil and other hazardous materials by pipeline and rail.

"If we restrict and make it impossible for people to look at new pipelines or do new investments, that is dangerous, more dangerous to the environment than building a the pipeline," she said.

Another amendment would have incentivized job growth in renewable energy industries, like wind power, by extending the Production Tax Credit  for five years.

All of her amendments failed to make the final cut for the bill.


Veto coming?

Heitkamp and Hoeven said Obama would likely veto the bill, as his administration has threatened. Yet, both said they believe efforts by Democrats and Republicans to come together on the issue could convince the Obama to sign the bill.

"We're hopeful that the president will take a look at this as an opportunity to work in a bipartisan way with the United States Congress and sign the bill," Heitkamp said.

Hoeven said putting this bill on the president's desk will force Obama to make a decision. Obama either has to approve the pipeline by giving Congress that ability, or effectively deny it by rejecting the bill, he added.

"He'll have to make a decision on the bill now," Hoeven said. "And I think he will. ... I don't know how he vetoes the bill and then continues to punt on making a decision."

Even if Obama decides to oppose Keystone XL, Heitkamp and Hoeven said they will keep pushing. Heitkamp said she would be involved in getting the additional votes needed to override the president's veto. Hoeven plans to attach a measure to a spending bill or other legislation later in the year that Obama would find hard to reject.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration. The House has voted nine times to approve the project. Aides to House leaders said it was not clear whether the chamber would vote to pass the Senate bill or work out changes in conference talks.

"I expect the differences between the two chambers will need to be resolved in a conference committee," Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said in a statement. "I believe a compromise can be reached which will satisfy bipartisan majorities in both the U.S. House and Senate, and ultimately provide the President with adequate political cover to finally put his signature on the project."


Reuters Media contributed to this report.


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