A depot used to store pipes for Transcanada Corp's planned Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Photograph by Reuters
By Benjamin Snyder
January 9, 2015

Debate over the Keystone pipeline is gushing again in Washington as both sides of the controversial project try to sway its future.

The proposed pipeline, which would transport oil from the Canadian tar sand fields to the Gulf Coast, has been a political hot button for years. The heat is building up again now that the Republicans, who generally support the project’s construction, have seized control of both houses of Congress.

They are hoping to have more success is getting the pipeline approved after a number of previous attempts fell short. The most recent failure came near the end of 2014, when a Senate bill lost by a single vote.

In current push, a bill approving the pipeline passed the Senate energy committee 13-9 on Thursday. The full Senate could vote on the measure next week.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives considered a similar bill Friday for the tenth time, voting to approve it by 266 – 153. Twenty-eight Democrats joined almost every Republican to vote in favor of it.

The White House, however, has made it clear that President Barack Obama would veto the bill. His administration argues that the pipeline must be approved through proper channels, meaning the State Department.

With more political machinations to come, here’s a look at the pipeline and why it’s such a controversial issue.

What does the project entail?

Keystone XL Pipeline, as the project is officially known, would transport oil from just over the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. It involves building 1,179 miles of new pipe across the northern Plains to Nebraska, where it would connect with an existing pipeline network.

The goal is to transport up to 830,000 barrels of oil per day to refineries on the Gulf Coast and in Midwest. The sales pitch is that it would lower American dependance on foreign oil by up to 40%.

The cost of the massive project would be enormous. Original estimates put the price tag at $5.4 billion. But because of delays, the price has since ballooned to $8 billion, according to Bloomberg.

Why is it so controversial?

TransCanada, the company proposing to build the pipeline, first applied through the State Department for approval in 2008. Almost immediately, lawmakers turned the project into a huge rallying point over issues like energy dependence, the environment and jobs.

Supporters of the pipeline have used the issue to attack the Obama Administration for what they call its misguided energy and economic policies. They argue the project would create thousands of construction jobs and boost energy security. Opponents, meanwhile, have fought back by criticizing what they say is the project’s environmental impact including carbon dioxide emissions and the risk of oil spills.

“The tar sands flowing through the pipeline will result in pollution that causes serious illnesses like asthma and increases in carbon pollution – the main cause of climate change,” California Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer, a critic of the bill, said recently.

Most U.S. citizens are in favor of the project, according to a Pew Center for Research survey in November. Fifty-nine percent said they favored building the pipeline while 31% were opposed.

What’s everyone saying?

Pipeline supporters, most of whom are Republicans, have vowed to push a bill approving construction through, despite the White House promising Tuesday to veto the legislation. Because the pipeline crosses an international border, the White House argues that the State Department can only give approval.

“There is already a well-established process in place to consider whether or not infrastructure projects like this are in the best interest of the country,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday.

In response, Canada issued a strongly worded statement in support of the pipeline and Congressional approval.

“Our position on Keystone remains the same: we believe the project should be approved,” according to Jason MacDonald, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s spokesman. “It will create jobs for American and Canadian workers, it has the support of the Canadian and American people, and the State Department itself has indicated it can be developed in an environmentally sustainable manner.”

The head of TransCanada reacted to the veto threat, too. CEO Russ Girling said that the Obama administration’s review process appears to be endless. “The bar continues to move again and again,” he said in a statement, according to Reuters.

What’s next?

Sponsors of the Senate bill are Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va, who said that the legislation has more than 63 votes in its favor. Passage requires 60 votes. But to overturn a presidential veto, they would need the support of 67 senators. Getting enough votes appears unlikely.

That vote is expected for next week.

In the House, supporters needed 290 votes to defeat a White House veto. However, it received 266 votes on Friday.

In November, the Senate measure failed 59 to 41, just one vote shy of passage. All 45 Republicans supported the pipeline’s construction along with 14 Democrats.

Just days earlier, the House passed its measure 252-161, with 31 Democrats voting in favor of the pipeline.

In threatening to veto any legislation, the White House said earlier this week that the State Department should be the one to recommend whether to approve the pipeline, not Congress. The argument is that the pipeline would cross and international border and therefore give diplomats a big say in whether to proceed with the project.

Earlier on Friday, before the House’s vote, Nebraska’s Supreme Court tossed a lawsuit challenging the pipeline’s route. It was was victory for pipeline supporters.

The State Department responded that it would review the legality of having the pipeline built in Nebraska.

“The State Department is examining the court’s decision as part of its process to evaluate whether the Keystone XL Pipeline project serves the national interest,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement. “As we have made clear, we are going to let that process play out.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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