The Senate is expected to vote today on a bill approving construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada to Steele City, Nebraska. From there, already existing pipeline would carry the oil to refineries along the Gulf Coast of Texas.
Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu is leading the charge for passage of the bill, an effort widely interpreted as a last-ditch push to help her win re-election. The three-term Democrat is facing Republican Bill Cassidy in a December 6th runoff and trailing Cassidy in opinion polls.
Landrieu says she's secured 59 of the 60 "yes" votes needed for the bill to pass, but getting to sixty seems less likely by the hour.
West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, Michigan's Carl Levin, and Maine's Agnus King, all of whom were seen as possible Landrieu supporters, announced in the hours before debate was set to begin that they would not support the bill.
"Congress is not — nor should it be — in the business of legislating the approval or disapproval of a construction project," King said in a press statement. "And while I am frustrated that the President has refused to make a decision on the future of the pipeline, I don't believe that short-circuiting the process to circumvent his Administration is in the best interest of the American people."
As Landrieu seeks one additional member of the Senate to support her cause, environmental groups have taken to social media in an effort to pressure senators to oppose the bill and have held several protests at the homes and offices of pipeline supporters in Congress.
"The fundamental point to outline is that the pipeline is a nightmare for the country," Karthik Ganathapy, of 350.org, told VICE News.
The organization led a protest on Monday at Landrieu's Washington, DC home, laying a black inflatable pipeline across her lawn and carrying a large sign reading: "If you're not a climate denier, don't vote like one." Among the protesters were indigenous people who live along the proposed pipeline route.
If Landrieu secures 60 votes, the bill will go before President Obama for approval. The House of Representatives passed a bill approving the pipeline on Friday, the ninth time they've done so.
Obama seems likely to veto the bill if it passes in the Senate. In a press conference in Myanmar on Friday, Obama said: "Understand what this project is: It is providing the ability of Canada to pump their oil, send it through our land, down to the Gulf, where it will be sold everywhere else. It doesn't have an impact on US gas prices."
"If my Republican friends really want to focus on what's good for the American people in terms of job creation and lower energy costs," he continued, "we should be engaging in a conversation about what are we doing to produce even more homegrown energy. I'm happy to have that conversation."
"We're not taking anything for granted, neither with the Senate vote nor with the presidential veto," Melinda Pierce, Legislative Director at the Sierra Club, told VICE News. "But I have to expect that any vote that tries to infringe upon Obama's executive authority or a vote that seeks to roll back the kind of progress he wants to make on climate, that that's very likely to be vetoed."
Once construction is completed, the pipeline would employ 35 permanent staff.
In June, the president said he would approve the pipeline only if it didn't make a significant contribution to climate change — a determination that has becoming highly contested.
The State Department released in January its final environmental impact report on the pipeline, finding that it would not lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions because, if the US didn't approve construction, the company proposing the pipeline — the Alberta-based TransCanada Corporation — would simply find another way get the oil to market.
Some scientists dispute the department's conclusion, however. A team of researchers led by Pete Erickson, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environmental Institute in Seattle, found that the department failed to account for economic factors that could lead to an increase in global oil consumption, and thus higher emissions. If the pipeline was built, they argued in a paper published in the journal Nature, production in Alberta's tar sands would increase, leading to a drop in global oil prices, which would encourage greater fossil fuel consumption.
Erickson and his team found that the pipeline could emit four times the annual amount of greenhouse gases estimated by the State Department.
Also at issue are the 36,500 jobs tied to construction of the pipeline. The State Department's report estimated that 10,400 seasonal workers would be needed to build the pipeline, with an additional 26,100 indirect jobs resulting from employees spending money on things like hotels and restaurants during construction.
Once construction is completed, however, the pipeline would employ 35 permanent staff. Pipeline opponents have drawn attention to this number, arguing that it reveals how little economic benefit the pipeline would generate.
"To refer to construction jobs as temporary shows that the people who make those comments don't understand the industry," David Mallino, Legislative Director for the Laborers' International Union of North America (LiUNA), told VICE News. "It's a bunch of people who are passing judgment on the careers of our members because projects that end at a given time are somehow less important to the economy than those who punch a clock every day."
Work on Keystone XL would be done by four unions: LiUNA, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the International Union of Operating Engineers, and the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters.
"These jobs are absolutely vital," Mallino told VICE News. "It's just a shame that we have to wait for six years for something that should have been approved as a matter of course, and that politicians have taken over what should have been a rational analysis."
Temporary or not, those same workers could be employed repairing aging pipelines already in existence or investing in clean energy infrastructure, Jamie Henn of 350.org said.
"This is really kind of a false debate," Henn told VICE News. "There's bill after bill in the U.S. Congress on job growth, repairing our aging infrastructure and repairing leaking pipeline infrastructure, which I think we all agree would be a good decision. If the Republicans are really serious about wanting to create jobs, why not host a six-hour floor debate on that?"
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