The Obama administration vowed on Tuesday to veto legislation that would force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline — the controversial infrastructure project that would transport 800,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta, Canada to US refineries.
The announcement sets up a faceoff with the Republican-led 114th Congress, which convened for the first time Tuesday and has vowed to make the pipeline bill its first order of business.
"I can confirm that the president would not sign this bill," White House Press Secretary John Earnest said during a press briefing.
Senator John Hoeven, a Republican from North Dakota and the bill's sponsor, told reporters on Monday that he has just 63 votes in support of the legislation — four short of the number needed to override a presidential veto.
This week's showdown is just the most recent phase in the protracted political struggle over Keystone XL. The House of Representatives has voted nine times over the last four years to approve or expedite a decision on the pipeline and is expected to authorize it yet again on Friday. Approval of the pipeline fell just one vote shy in the Democrat-controlled Senate this fall.
'We view it as putting lipstick on a pig.'
The new Senate bill is currently scheduled to go through the Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday. Democrats have discussed adding amendments, including banning the export of oil transported via the pipeline and requiring the creation of green energy projects.
In a weekend letter obtained by The Hill, New York Democrat Charles Schumer and Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, told their Senate colleagues the amendments demonstrate that Democrats "are working hard to make the average American family better off while Republicans are helping narrow special interests."
But those add-ons don't impress environmental groups.
"We view it as putting lipstick on a pig," Jake Thompson, International Program Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council told VICE News.
The Keystone XL pipeline has been among the mostly hotly contested energy issues in America since it was first proposed in 2008. Environmentalists have referred to as a "fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet" that would spell certain climate doom. To Republicans, it's an engine of job creation and energy independence.
"The needlessly protracted fight over the Keystone XL pipeline only deprives tens of thousands of hardworking Americans of well-paying jobs and our nation of a safe and efficient means of transporting much needed North American energy resources," Jack Gerard, CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, said.
The pipeline's impacts on job creation are contentious. Republicans, like Hoeven, have been adamant that it would "create" more than 42,000 jobs, while Democrats point out that Keystone XL would only create 35 permanent jobs.
An analysis by the US Department of State found that the pipeline would "support" 42,000 jobs, which includes already existing positions at restaurants or hotels, as well as 16,000 construction jobs. The report says 35 permanent jobs would remain following completion of the pipeline.
In other words: Construction of the Keystone XL pipeline would generate some good, albeit temporary, employment; but it wouldn't have any discernible, long-term impact on the American economy, overall.
President Obama has dismissed the notion that the pipeline would benefit American energy security or lower gas prices.
"It's very good for Canadian oil companies and it's good for the Canadian oil industry, but it's not going to be a huge benefit to US consumers," he said in December.
Given those remarks, along with President Obama's oft-expressed concerns about the pipeline's impact on the climate, it was hardly a surprise when Earnest announced the veto threat. But the current veto may be less for ideological reasons than for a procedural one: A Nebraska court is weighing a challenge to the project's route and the White House says it cannot sufficiently consider the merits of the pipeline without knowing its exact path. The court is expected to rule early this year.
"It would be premature to try to evaluate the project before something as basic as the route of the project has been decided," Earnest said.
Though the battle is far from over, the veto was hailed by environmental groups, who have lately been heartened by a string of presidential actions on climate change, from a pact with China on reigning in greenhouse gas emissions to proposed clean air regulations on existing US power plants.
"The president has said that he won't approve the pipeline if it's going to significantly exacerbate carbon pollution," Thompson told VICE News. "Our hope is that rejecting the pipeline is one more good step this administration is going to take."
Follow Ben Goldfarb on Twitter: @ben_a_goldfarb