Obama vetoes Keystone XL

Zack Colman,  Washington Examiner

President Obama used his veto power for the third time of his presidency to nix legislation authorizing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, sending the bill back to Congress for an override attempt.

The rejection Tuesday was expected. The federal government has been reviewing the Canada-to-Texas project for more than six years, and the White House has consistently said it wouldn’t accept legislation circumventing that process.

“The presidential power to veto legislation is one I take seriously. But I also take seriously my responsibility to the American people. And because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest — including our security, safety, and environment — it has earned my veto,” Obama said in his veto message to Congress.

The veto doesn’t scrap Keystone XL outright, as it’s still undergoing federal review for a cross-border permit needed to finish the northern leg. And while there has been years of delay on the pipeline, Obama hasn’t weighed in on whether he supports or opposes it.

But that time may be coming soon.

The State Department is evaluating comments from other federal agencies used to determine whether the 1,700-mile pipeline is in the national interest. The recommendation is the last step in the federal review process before kicking the decision to the White House, though there’s no timeline for that final ruling.

Republicans plan to try again to force Obama’s hand on the $8 billion project.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters the upper chamber would try to override the veto, even though the bill passed both chambers last month with less than the two-thirds majority needed to trump one. Republicans also have discussed wrapping the project into a broader energy or spending bill Obama might sign.

McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said the veto override process would begin no later than March 3.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin said he was confident Democrats could sustain a veto and that Keystone XL wouldn’t get through tacked onto another bill.

“It was the highest priority of the Senate Republican majority — the No. 1 bill from the Senate Republican majority. So I guess we’re going to see it again, but the president is going to continue to veto it,” the Illinois Democrat told reporters.

Republicans and centrist Democrats say the project would bring jobs — the State Department projected 42,100 posts during its two-year construction and 35 full-time jobs afterward — and strengthen energy security, without spending any taxpayer dollars.

Some observers have said Obama might trade approval of Keystone XL for another priority. The president has often given his environmental base a win on one issue and industry groups a victory on another. Most recently, his administration proposed opening the Atlantic Ocean to offshore drilling for the first time since the 1980s just days after moving to block oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But many others are gearing up for a potentially quick White House denial of the cross-border permit needed to build the pipeline’s northern leg.

One complication is that Democrats want a decision on the pipeline before the 2016 presidential campaign kicks into full gear. Likely Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who oversaw initial reviews of Keystone XL as secretary of state, has avoided discussing the project and presumably wouldn’t want to answer questions about it on the campaign trail.

“One of many reasons Clinton may not announce until summer is to let Keystone and the budget battles play out. She would definitely like to avoid taking a position — she conspicuously avoided mentioning it at [the League of Conservation Voters’] NYC dinner last year,” a Democratic strategist recently told the Washington Examiner in an email.

While it’s unclear exactly whether he’ll OK the Keystone XL, Obama has spoken dismissively of the TransCanada Corp. project in recent public comments.

The president has downplayed the pipeline’s job figures and echoed environmentalist concerns that the oil sands it would transport are destined for overseas markets. He also has said that whether the project “exacerbates the problem of carbon pollution” will determine its fate.

Keystone XL supporters have pushed back on such statements. They have said there’s little evidence showing that the oil sands would be shipped overseas. A study released Monday by consulting firm IHS found that “most, if not all” of the oil sands the pipeline would transport would stay in the U.S. and that about 70 percent of oil that is refined would remain within the country.

The pipeline’s boosters also have noted that the State Department’s final environmental impact statement said Keystone XL wouldn’t pose a significant environmental risk.

“The administration has delayed this important infrastructure project for over six years, despite a series of environmental reviews, all of which conclude that the project will have no significant environmental impact. It has been more than enough time to make a fair decision on the merits of the project,” lead bill sponsor Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said Monday.

But environmental groups contend the State review was flawed.

“There’s been a litany of information that connects Keystone and pipeline capacity to the expansion of the tar sands,” Anthony Swift, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Examiner in a recent interview.

They say lower oil prices make the cost savings enabled by pipeline transport a key driver of oil sands development. The State Department review said the crude would get to market by rail or other pipelines regardless, but hadn’t considered sustained oil prices below $75 per barrel a likely scenario. But oil has lost around half its value since June and is currently trading near $60 per barrel.

The Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month said the State Department should consider retesting its assumptions with lower oil prices.

“Given recent large declines in oil prices and the uncertainty of oil price projections, the additional low-price scenario included in the final [Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement] should be given additional weight during decision making, due to the potential implications of lower oil prices on project impacts, especially greenhouse gas emissions,” said Cynthia Giles, EPA assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

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