Senate Narrowly Rejects Keystone XL Amidst Protests by Climate Activists

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The Senate rejected a bill that would have forced a fast-tracked approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline by a narrow vote Tuesday evening.

The vote was a huge victory for environmentalists, who see blocking the pipeline as both a practical and politically significant effort in their battle to curb climate change. Eco-activists organized protest actions at lawmakers’ offices across the country ahead of the vote.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana), needed 60 votes to avoid a filibuster and pass the bill, but she failed to garner enough support from her own party and the bill narrowly failed 59-41.

The White House had indicated that it would likely be vetoed if it landed on President Obama’s desk, and some observers have chalked up the entire vote to a political exercise pitting climate activists in the Democrats’ base against pro-business Republicans, and Landrieu against Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, who she faces in a tight runoff on December 6.

“Once again, Congress tried to play games with our future – and failed,” said May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, an environmental group that opposes the pipeline. “Since Keystone XL has always been President Obama’s decision, this vote was never anything more than an empty gesture of political theater.”

The Keystone XL pipeline would run from heavy tar sands oil production facilities in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, carrying oil that emits 17 percent more greenhouse gases overall than conventional oil refined in the United States, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The pipeline is also a political football. The State Department has failed to make a decision on whether to approve the pipeline for years while the GOP has used the pipeline as fodder to attack the Obama administration for prioritizing environmental concerns over jobs.

The most recent volley is between Landrieu and Cassidy.

Landrieu is the chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and her campaign has focused on what benefits this powerful position can bring to her home state of Louisiana, where oil and gas are dominant industries. Landrieu is not shy about her support for oil and gas, and analysis shows the she is clearly in the pocket of the industry.

Cassidy, who is reportedly ahead in the polls taken in the already conservative state, was able to pass his own version of the bill through the GOP-controlled House last week.

Cassidy has refused to attend public debates with Landrieu and other candidates in the past and has not said much during his entire campaign for Landrieu’s seat besides that, he too supports oil and gas production, and his opponent happens to be in the same party as President Obama, who is largely unpopular in much of Louisiana.

Keystone XL has also been a rallying point for environmentalists and climate activists, who say the pipeline and other projects using tar sands oil would exacerbate climate change and distract political leaders from developing alterative energy sources.

Actions erupted across Washington, DC, yesterday, with 50 activists dragging a replica pipeline onto the front lawn of Landrieu’s DC estate, and other groups of activists invading the offices of other lawmakers to demand that they vote “no.”

Activists also confronted lawmakers on social media or staged direct actions at their offices, with several Democrats who supported the bill or were on the fence as their main targets. Activists on Twitter reported that at least four arrests were made when student activists invaded Sen. Tom Carper’s (D-Delaware) office. Carper reportedly voted for the pipeline anyway.

Republican leadership in the Senate has promised to bring the Keystone XL issue up again when they take control of the upper chamber in the next term, but 350.org points out that the GOP would still be four votes short of the 67 needed to override a presidential veto.

Environmentalists are now urging Obama to make a final decision and axe the project once and for all.

“The bill would have turned Congress into a permitting authority, overriding environmental law, and giving a green light to a pipeline project that would worsen climate change and threaten water quality,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The Senate did the right thing to reject the misguided bill, and now the president should do the right thing and reject the pipeline.”

Republicans were unanimous for their support of the Keystone XL bill.

Here is a list of Democrats who joined Carper and Landrieu in supporting the bill, according to USA Today: Senators Mark Begich (Alaska), Kay Hagan (North Carolina), Mark Pryor (Arkansas), John Walsh (Montana), Michael Bennet (Colorado), Bob Casey (Pennsylvania), Joe Donnelly (Indiana), Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota), Joe Manchin (West Virginia), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), Jon Tester (Montana), and Mark Warner (Virginia).