Senate Republicans announced a bill on Monday that would allow Canadian oil company TransCanada to begin construction of its proposed $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline that would run 1,700 miles from Canada to Texas.
The bill's top sponsors – Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), David Vitter (R-Louisiana) – are the same lawmakers who authored a provision in the payroll tax cut extension in December that required President Obama to approve or deny the pipeline within 60 days.
Blaming the deadline, President Obama rejected a permit for the project earlier this month because the State Department had recently decided to push back its final decision another year to allow officials in Nebraska time to explore alternative pipeline routes that avoid environmentally sensitive areas and a large freshwater aquifer.
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Lugar's bill would allow TransCanada to begin construction in other states while Nebraska works to find an alternate route.
Obama said the rejection was not based on “merits” of the project, and in the past week, the president unveiled plans to expand domestic oil and gas production that include leasing 38 million underwater acres in the Gulf of Mexico.
On Sunday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told ABC news that the House would attach similar pipeline approval legislation to an infrastructure and jobs bill that will be introduced next week.
The GOP's Pipeline Politics
The Republican obsession with the Keystone pipeline is exacerbating a political headache for Obama and fellow Democrats, whose voter base is split on the issue, with environmental groups and climate activists opposed to the pipeline and some labor unions supporting it.
Putting a bill on Obama's desk that would approve the pipeline could force the president to take a position on the controversial project during an election year. A veto would give the GOP more ammo to call Obama a job killer, who canceled a infrastructure project during tough economic times, but signing the bill would enrage the environmental movement that brought thousands to the White House to protest the pipeline last year.
When asked about the pipeline approval bill, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Monday that he had no opinion on legislation that “may or may not come to pass” and took the opportunity to blame Republicans for politicizing the project and creating a deadline that forced Obama to reject it.
Neil Brown, a spokesperson for Senator Lugar, said the Keystone XL pipeline is worth supporting regardless of the surrounding politics.
“If you look at the numbers, it speaks for itself,” said Brown, who pointed out that it's better to get oil from Canada than from politically unstable oil producing countries.
The pipeline would transport 830,000 barrels of oil a day, most of it heavy crude extracted from the Alberta tar sands, a process climate activists and environmentalists also oppose.
Lugar and his colleagues continue to claim the project would create 20,000 jobs, a number under heavy debate in the media. Independent researchers at Cornell University estimated the pipeline would directly create about 2,500 to 6,000 temporary construction jobs.
Big Oil's Deep Pockets
Here's some other numbers to consider: the oil and gas industry is the top contributor to the campaign committees of Lugar's top co-sponsors, with Senator Vitton receiving $523,850 and Senator Hoeven receiving $263,289 since 2007.
At a protest at Boehner's district office in Ohio last week, environmentalists pointed out that the House speaker, who has hammered Obama for rejecting the pipeline, has received $1.2 million in contributions from “dirty” energy firms connected to coal, oil and gas production. According to Boehner's 2010 financial disclosure forms, filed last year, the speaker had $10,000 to $50,000 in investments in several energy firms involved in Alberta tar sands extraction, including Exxon Mobile and Canadian Natural Resources.
“It's quite amazing to watch how Capitol Hill works – to realize that many of these guys are less public servants and more employees of the oil industry,” said author and 350.org founder Bill McKibben, who organized protests against the pipeline. “Two weeks ago the head of the American Petroleum Institute promised 'huge political consequences' if Obama didn't do what they wanted, and now they're trying to make good on the threat.”
The bill that would approve the pipeline has 44 co-sponsors. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is currently the only Democrat on the list.