LINCOLN — Nebraska emerged yet again Tuesday in the national political showdown over the Keystone XL pipeline.
A White House official said for the first time that President Barack Obama would veto legislation to approve the much-delayed Canadian oil pipeline, citing the pending court decision on its route through Nebraska.
Hours after the Republican-controlled Senate announced a bill to allow construction of the Keystone XL, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said lawmakers need to let the “well-established process” play out.
“If this bill passes this Congress, the president wouldn’t sign” it, Earnest said Tuesday. He added that legislation shouldn’t undermine the State Department’s ongoing review of the project or circumvent the Nebraska Supreme Court’s consideration of the state law used to establish the pipeline route.
Russ Girling, president and CEO of TransCanada, the Calgary-based company that wants to build the pipeline, expressed frustration over the White House’s defense of a process that has now taken the federal government six years. Approval of TransCanada’s first Keystone pipeline, which runs through Nebraska, took about two years from start to finish.
“The review process for Keystone XL has been anything but a ‘well-established process,’ ” Girling said Tuesday.
Jane Kleeb, director of the environmental advocacy group Bold Nebraska, a pipeline opponent, hailed the White House announcement, calling it “unacceptable” that Republican congressional leaders want to interfere with the pipeline permitting process.
“The presidential veto is both warranted and very welcomed news as it’s one more day the Sand Hills, the Ogallala Aquifer and property rights are protected,” she said.
The bipartisan bill is sponsored by all 54 Senate Republicans and six Democrats. But supporters would have to find additional votes to reach the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.
The two main sponsors, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said Tuesday that they had enough votes to overcome a filibuster of the bill but not a presidential veto. The House is expected to vote and pass a bill approving the $5.4 billion project on Friday.
Hoeven, the chief Republican sponsor in the Senate, said that if the president rejects the bill, he would work to attach it to a broader energy package or must-pass spending bills.
Several new members of Congress from Nebraska and Iowa expressed support for legislation to approve the pipeline.
Rep. Brad Ashford, D-Neb., took issue with a veto threat being tied to the situation in Nebraska.
“What we fought for in the Legislature was a safe routing of the pipeline, and the bill that’s going to come before us, I believe, at least the one I’ve seen, does provide for respect for the routing process in Nebraska,” he said. “I can’t ask anybody to do anything more than that.”
Ashford said he has concerns about safety if the oil is shipped by rail instead of by pipeline. And he pledged to vote to override a presidential veto.
“I’m just against the president’s position on this,” Ashford said. “I think the president is just off-base.”
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said he appreciated Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wanting to jump on issues such as the pipeline that enjoy bipartisan agreement. “I’m hopeful that the president will find things that he wants to actually cooperate on,” he said.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said moving forward on the pipeline is important to bolstering the country’s infrastructure and developing domestic natural resources.
The bill is identical to one that failed to pass the Senate by a single vote in November, when Democrats were in control and Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu pushed a vote in an effort to help her re-election bid. She lost in a December runoff to Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, sponsor of the successful House bill approving the pipeline.
The odds of passage are now much improved with the GOP takeover of the Senate. The bill also will test Republicans’ commitment to more open debate. Hoeven and Manchin said they welcomed additions to the bill, which they hoped would increase support.
In a letter to fellow Democrats from their leadership obtained by the Associated Press, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said the Keystone XL bill was “the first opportunity to demonstrate that we will be united, energetic, and effective in offering amendments that create a clear contrast with the Republican majority.”
Among the ideas suggested in the letter were measures to prohibit exporting the oil abroad, to ensure that American iron, steel and other goods were used in the pipeline’s construction and to match every job created by the pipeline with an investment in clean energy.
It’s not the first time Obama has pointed to Nebraska’s process when halting the federal review of the project. In 2012, he denied the first permit for Keystone XL, saying more time was needed for Nebraska to establish a new route to avoid the Sand Hills’ high water tables.
Last year, his administration hit the pause button again to give the Nebraska Supreme Court time to decide the legality of the route approved by Gov. Dave Heineman in 2013. A lower court said state law unconstitutionally delegated route approval authority to the governor.
If the State Supreme Court strikes down the law used to set the route, TransCanada officials have said they will submit a new application to the Nebraska Public Service Commission. Route review by the commission would take at least seven months.
State Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, one of the project’s strongest supporters in Nebraska, said he has heard of no pipeline-related bills planned for the upcoming session of the Legislature, which begins today.
“It confounds me as to why the president continues to oppose it,” Smith said Tuesday, referring to opinion polls that show a majority of Americans support the project.
In recent months, Obama has been increasingly critical of the project. At his year-end press conference, Obama said the pipeline would help Canadian oil companies while providing little benefit to American consumers, who are already seeing low gasoline prices thanks to falling oil prices, which reached a nearly six-year low this week.
The project would move heavy crude from the oil sands of Western Canada 1,179 miles south across Nebraska and on to Gulf Coast refineries. Supporters say it would create jobs and ease U.S. dependence on Middle East oil. A government environmental review also predicted that the pipeline would result in less damage to the environment than moving the same oil by rail.
Critics argue that mining of the oil sands itself is environmentally harmful and that the pipeline represents a threat to underground water supplies and private property to move oil that will be shipped to foreign markets. The declining price of crude oil has also made oil sands projects less economically feasible, prompting critics to speculate that without the pipeline, the Canadian oil will remain underground.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
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