By Juliet Eilperin & Ed O’Keefe, Washington Post, March 8 2012
In the wake of lobbying by President Obama and Senate Democratic leaders, the Senate defeated legislation to speed up construction of a U-S.-Canadian oil pipeline by a margin of 56 to 42 on Thursday.
The White House victory — won after the president started personally calling Democratic senators Wednesday night — underscores the extent to which rising gas prices and energy supply have become a central political issue.
Republicans--along with the oil industry, which is running a nationwide advertising campaign about energy supplies -- have been attacking Obama on the campaign trail for failing to fully exploit traditional oil and gas resources while Americans are financially stretched. Democrats and their environmental supporters counter that the president must weigh the benefits of fossil fuels against their environmental impact and the importance of promoting renewable energy.
The dispute came to a head Thursday afternoon on Capitol Hill, as the Senate considered two competing amendments to a federal transportation bill addressing the Keystone XL pipeline extension, which would carry heavy crude oil from Alberta’s oil sands to gulf coast refineries. The project requires pipeline’s builder, TransCanada, to get a federal permit from the State Department because it crosses an international border; Obama rejected the permit in January when faced with a congressionally-mandated deadline of Feb. 21.
GOP Sens. John Hoeven (N.D.), Richard G. Lugar (Ind.) and David Vitter (La.) offered an amendment Thursday that would have eliminated TransCanada’s need for a federal permit to cross the U.S.-Canadian border, while allowing Nebraska unlimited time to develop an alternative route through its territory. At the time Obama rejected the permit, he said he could not approve the pipeline until the firm hoping to build it developed a route circumventing the environmentally sensitive Sandhills area in Nebraska.
Lugar said in a floor speech that building the “pipeline would create thousands of private sector jobs, and it would help protect United States national security interests. It comes at no taxpayer expense, and it will strengthen vital ties with our ally Canada.”
Seconds after the vote, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) issued a statement blaming Obama for killing the amendment.
“Democrat opposition to this legislation shows how deeply out of touch they are with the concerns of middle-class Americans,” McConnell said. “President Obama’s personal pleas to wavering senators may have tipped the balance against this legislation. When it comes to delays over Keystone, anyone looking for a culprit should now look no further than the Oval Office.”
Opponents of the pipeline argue that extracting energy-intense crude from the oil sands will accelerate climate change and that oil could spill on the ecologically fragile habitat along its route.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters that Democrats would not yield to pressure to speed up construction of the pipeline when TransCanada has not outlined its full route. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his deputies worked behind the scenes to mobilize opposition to the amendment.