Keystone OK’d by Senate Committee, House & Nebraska

Gale Courey Toensing

The Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline moved forward last week when a Senate committee and the House voted to approve the project despite President Obama’s promise to veto the bill, and the Nebraska Supreme Court permitted its construction through the state.

The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources voted 13-9 on January 8 to pass S. 1, “To Approve the Keystone XL Pipeline” – the first Senate bill of the 114th Congress. The bill was introduced two days earlier by Senators John Hoeven (R-ND) and Joe Manchin (D-WV). Manchin, the only Democrat out of step with his party, voted with every Republican on the committee to pass the bill.

The controversial $8 billion Keystone XL Pipeline, a project of the massive Canadian-owned TransCanada Corporation, would carry more than 800,000 barrels of oil a day from tar sands in Alberta through Indian country and American states all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, if completed. The Texas portion is already built and carrying other oil, while the northern portion—including the section that would cross the international border with Canada, which President Barack Obama must approve—is pending the outcome of a State Department review, as well as some legal challenges.

RELATED: Threat or Promise? White House Says Obama Would Veto Keystone XL Legislation

In her opening remarks, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the committee's new chairman and an ardent promoter of the tar sands oil pipeline, thanked members for “the opportunity to help correct our energy agenda for these next couple of years.”

If campaign contributions are an indication, the energy agenda will lean toward the oil and gas industries, which contributed $55,990,008 to politicians in the 2014 election cycle, according to Open Secrets. Thirteen of the top 20 recipients of funds were Republicans. Among the top recipients were Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX)) at $863,206 and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell at $611,858. Murkowski was 15th at $110,796.

Murkowski also promised not to forget that the committee has jurisdiction over public lands – an ominous prospect for those who opposed the Senate’s recent giveaway of 2,400 acres of public land in Arizona that is sacred to the San Carlos Apache Tribe and other Indian nations to the global mining giant Rio Tinto to dig the biggest underground copper mine in the country.

RELATED: San Carlos Apache Leader Seeks Senate Defeat of Copper Mine on Sacred Land

Turning to Keystone, Murkowski said, "It's fair to say that the world is watching to see whether the United States is ready to lead as a global energy superpower...that respects its neighbors, trades with its allies, and builds necessary infrastructure such as pipelines. … I believe Congress is ready to send that signal in a bipartisan manner.

If the world was watching the committee meeting what it saw was a preview of what promises to be a contentious partisan battle when the bill is sent to the Senate for a floor debate and vote this week, possibly as early as today. The Senate’s new Republican majority supports Keystone based largely on an almost mystical faith that an unrestrained “free market” approach to the project will create thousands of jobs and foster economic growth.

“It just amazes me that we have to pass a law to make the federal government get out of the way so that the free market system can work,” Sen. James Risch (R-ID) said. “The decision as to what happens with this pipeline shouldn’t be the government’s; it ought to be the free market system. Let the free marketplace work! If it’s a good thing it’s going to get built, if it’s a bad thing, it’s not going to get built. It’s, like I say, for those people who want to control every aspect of our lives, this is a poster child for how you do it. We need to get out of the way, pass this and let the marketplace work.”

The Democrats oppose the pipeline, citing a State Department study showing construction would create around 1,950 jobs a year for two years, followed by 35-50 permanent jobs once the pipeline is in operation. They also object on environmental grounds, citing the risks to water and land and that the process of extracting oil from tar sands adds huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) gave an impassioned speech about the worldwide scientific consensus on the human cause of climate change, which can be viewed here. "The debate I’m hearing today… is to reject science and I am very worried about the U.S. Congress turning its back on science, turning its back on those people who tell us that we have got to cut carbon emissions rather than to give a green light to the exploration and the production of some of the dirtiest oil on this planet. I think frankly that is crazy," he told the committee.

Sanders offered an amendment that would put Congress on record as affirming that "climate change is real," that it’s "caused by human activities," and it’s “imperative that the United States transform its energy system away from fossil fuels and toward energy efficiency and sustainable energy." Manchin offered an amendment to Sander’s amendment. He wanted to replace the “imperative” statement with the statement that the U.S. should "invest in research and development for clean fossil technology.” Sanders refused and the committee voted to table all discussion of amendments until the bill’s floor debate of the bill.

The bill has 60 sponsors. Republicans believe they have 63 votes – enough to pass the bill, but not the 67 votes required to veto-proof it.

The next day the new Republican-controlled House passed a bill authorizing the Keystone XL Pipeline by a supermajority of 266-153 votes.

Also on Friday, Nebraska's Supreme Court tossed out a lower court ruling that blocked the pipeline. Obama’s veto promise was based in part on the court’s resolution of this case, but after the announcement White House spokesman Eric Schulz said in a statement that the veto promise still stands. "As we have made clear, we are going to let that process play out," he said. "Regardless of the Nebraska ruling today, the House bill still conflicts with longstanding Executive branch procedures regarding the authority of the president and prevents the thorough consideration of complex issues that could bear on U.S. national interests, and if presented to the president, he will veto the bill.”

The pipeline is hotly opposed by Indian country, environmentalists and ranchers. Rosebud Sioux Tribe President Cyril Scott, who previously promised an “Indian uprising” if developers try to site the pipeline in South Dakota, issued a press release on Friday reiterating Rosebud’s “steadfast commitment“ to opposing the pipeline. The tribe has established a Spiritual Camp – Oyate Wahacanka Woecum [Shield the People] to protect the land, water and people, Scott said. The camp will insure that TransCanada “cannot start construction of this black snake that our ancestors warned us of so many years ago” until a case filed at the state’s Public Utilities Commission by Rosebud and three other tribes is resolved, he said.

RELATED: Rosebud Leader on Keystone: ‘Test Us – You’ll See an Indian Uprising’

RELATED: South Dakota Keeps Keystone XL Permit Process Intact for May Hearings

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