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Keystone XL Heads to a Senate Vote, Despite Irrelevance

Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty Images

A single vote in the Senate on Tuesday could determine the fate of legislation that fast-tracks approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. There are 59 Senators who publicly back the bill. And the bill’s sponsor Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana incumbent who hopes this boosts her prospects in a long-shot runoff election in December, says she is “very comfortable” the bill will get the 60 votes needed for a filibuster-proof majority.

The strange thing about Keystone is that legislators intend to force its approval at a time when it has become irrelevant. It would carry 830,000 barrels a day of crude oil to refineries on the Gulf Coast where it would be processed into fuels. 

However, since it was first proposed, the economics surrounding it have changed, with oil prices falling sharply, and the oil industry has pursued other options for oil transportation, including other pipeline projects and railroad shipments. Harold Hamm, an oil billionaire and CEO of Continental Resources, recently told Politico the debate is no longer relevant. “We’re supporting other pipelines out there, we’re not waiting on Keystone,” he said. “Nobody is.” Bloomberg News quoted several energy consultants that said the same. TransCanada’s CEO, however, continues to make the case that its pipeline will be necessary.

This doesn’t make the arguments in favor of the pipeline any stronger. In fact, they continue to be weak. Supporters tout the construction jobs it creates, a heavily disputed number, and how it can affect energy prices, though there is little evidence it will have an impact. When those arguments have failed, supporters say the oil will inevitably be produced, and transporting it by pipeline is generally safer than trains. If Keystone isn't built, then shipping the oil by another means will be more expensive for producers and less profitable.

Keystone  has become a grassroots issue not just for the risks the oil pose to environmentally sensitive regions, but because it would help increase global carbon emissions by encouraging the expansion of Canada's vast tar sands reserves. Tar sands oil requires a more energy-intensive extraction process and so it is responsible for even more emissions than regular oil drilling. Because of this, Keystone has become a symbol for the climate movement to rally against—representing how governments and companies prioritize profit over preventing climate catastrophe.

But the six-year drama surrounding the pipeline probably isn’t over, just yet. President Barack Obama is expected to veto the bill, though the White House has not made any formal announcement. Of course, all this would just repeat itself in January when Republicans will surely have enough votes to send a Keystone bill to the president. They may even be within a few votes of the two-thirds needed to overcome a presidential veto.

Still, Keystone could be delayed again in a few weeks depending on what the Nebraska Supreme Court decides in a case about whether the state legislature had authority to approve the pipeline route.

Rebecca Leber

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