Environmentalists reacted swiftly to downplay a bipartisan Senate vote backing the Keystone XL pipeline, which supporters said underscored widening political support for the project.
The Senate approved 62-37 language that encourages development of the $5.3 billion pipeline, which would link Alberta’s oil sands and refineries along the Gulf Coast. Seventeen Democrats joined all Senate Republicans on March 22 to add the pipeline amendment to the budget plan that is at odds with the House version.
“This has always been about the president,” Daniel Kessler, a spokesman for 350.org, an environmental group that supports action on climate change. “We never expected Congress to do the right thing.”
Environmentalists are opposing the pipeline that they say would increase emissions of gases tied to climate change. President Barack Obama 14 months ago denied a permit for the pipe, citing concerns tied to Nebraska’s drinking water, and Calgary-based sponsor TransCanada Corp. (TRP) refiled with a new route.
Lena Moffit, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said while the San Francisco-based environmental group wasn’t happy with the vote, it wasn’t “putting much weight” on it because it is non- binding.
She said the amendment’s language is “vague” and “fluffy.”
Environmentalists led by 350.org said Keystone would increase the risks of climate change by promoting development of oil sands, which would release more greenhouse gases than other most conventional drilling.
The pipeline cleared a milestone March 1 when the State Department released its updated environmental impact statement of the route TransCanada proposed after opposition scuttled an earlier plan. The analysis found that the impact would be minimal because the oil sands would be developed with or without Keystone.
The department, which has authority over Keystone because it crosses an international border, is expected to make a recommendation to Obama by September.
“The Senate vote is another sign of growing political support for the pipeline, which now seems more likely than not to gain approval from the administration,” Paul Bledsoe, a senior fellow on energy at the German Marshall Fund, said in an e-mail.
Keystone’s backers said the Senate vote is a sign momentum was on their side.
“The Senate spoke with a clear voice on the Keystone XL pipeline,” Benjamin Cole, a spokesman for American for Energy Alliance, a Washington-based group that supports fossil fuel development, said in an e-mailed statement. “It is telling that the amendment garnered such overwhelming and new support from across the political spectrum.”
Environmental groups urged senators to reject the amendment, sponsored by North Dakota Republican John Hoeven. Representatives from 350.org met with aides for Democratic Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Mark Warner of Virginia, among others, prior to the vote, Kessler said. Both men backed the amendment.
“It’s impossible for a U.S. senator to say they’re for action on climate change and support the pipeline,” Kessler said. “It’s like saying you’re against obesity and then putting soft drinks in every school.”
Jamie Henn, also a spokesman for 350.org, said groups were upset with Delaware Senators Christopher Coons and Tom Carper, both Democrats, who switched sides after opposing a Republican effort last year to force Obama to approve the pipeline.
“We’re going to turn out people to visit their offices or public events and make their disappointment known,” Henn said.
Kevin Hall, a Warner spokesman, said the senator supports Keystone, and wants the review to move forward with “public input and transparency.”
Warner opposed the Republican effort last year because he felt it would short-circuit “an established review process,” Hall said.
Warner and Coons are up for re-election in 2014. Bennet is the chairman of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee.
“Senator Coons has consistently said that it’s up to the administration to decide whether the pipeline should proceed, and this vote is consistent with that,” Ian Koski, a spokesman, said in an e-mail. “He supports the administration’s process for making a decision.”
Ian Sams, a spokesman for Carper, said the senator “continues to support letting the approval process by the Department of State and ultimately President Obama go forward.”
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