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U.S. Senate says no to Keystone XL in close vote

After a vigorous six-hour debate, the U.S. Senate failed, by one vote, to pass a bill authorizing the immediate construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., center right, and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., center left, emerge from the chamber after the Senate rejected fast-track approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014.

After a vigorous six-hour debate, the U.S. Senate failed, by one vote, to pass a bill authorizing the immediate construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

The negative vote — just shy of the required 60 — comes five days after the House of Representatives voted to approve the pipeline. Final authorization now rests solely with U.S President Barack Obama, who has said he will make his decision following the resolution of a court case in Nevada. The $8-billion pipeline has been under study for more than six years.

Pipeline project owner TransCanada reacted to the 59-41 vote claiming it “demonstrates a growing and high level of support for Keystone XL.”

“We will continue to push for reason over gridlock, common sense over symbolism and solid science over rhetoric to approve Keystone XL and unlock its benefits for America,” the company’s statement said.

Tuesday’s debate drew two distinctly different pictures of America’s energy future. Proponents of the pipeline emphasized jobs and energy security framed within an all-inclusive energy mix, while opponents argued for a clean energy future that excludes the kind of heavy oil that the pipeline will transport from Alberta’s oilsands to Gulf Coast refineries.

Opponents were led by Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, who claimed oilsands bitumen would adversely affect the health and environment of Americans and worsen climate change.

She argued that spills from the pipeline are inevitable and the heavy oilsands bitumen is impossible to clean up. She noted that a portion of the pipeline would travel over the Ogallala Aquifer, where farmers in eight states from North Dakota to Texas get their water.

She also argued that refining oilsands bitumen causes increased incidents of cancer, asthma and other diseases linked to oilsands toxins.

“Misery follows the tarsands and that’s why I call this the Keystone XL Extra Lethal pipeline,” Boxer said on the Senate floor. “This is an issue that impacts the health and safety of our families and our planet.”

Boxer said that in the vicinity of oilsands operations in Alberta “significantly higher levels of dangerous pollutants and carcinogens have been documented. People living in the nearby communities are suffering higher rates of cancers linked to toxic chemicals including leukemia (and) non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This is a fact. The big oil companies won’t talk about it.”

“The pipeline itself is benign,” she said. “It’s what’s going through it.”

The bill is sponsored by Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu who used the Keystone issue in attempt to rescue struggling campaign for re-election. She is trailing in the polls leading up to a runoff vote on Dec. 6 in Louisiana.  Her opponent, Republican opponent Rep. Bill Cassidy, sponsored an identical bill that passed the House last week.

Keystone is an issue in Louisiana where Landrieu has been criticized for not supporting the pipeline, which is why she decided last week to sponsor the Senate bill.

Landrieu on Tuesday attempted to counter the environmental concerns expressed by Boxer and other Democrats, noting that five environmental reviews show the pipeline represents no meaningful risk to the environment.

Brandishing the latest environmental statement on Keystone, she said the study shows that the oil in the pipeline will emit annually only 0.015 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“That is equivalent to 300,000 passenger vehicles in America, which is equivalent to 0.12 per cent of cars in America, ” she said.

“We have been building pipelines in this country before most of us, all of us were born,” she said. “And yes, this pipeline comes from Canada, our best trading partner, our most reliable ally, a country that is the most equivalent to us in the United States of America and because it’s a pipeline connecting Canada and the U.S., it’s all become this boogeyman that’s going to wreck the world.”

While opponents argued that the oil is for export to Europe or Asia, Landrieu cited U.S. energy department report saying the oil would be refined and sold in the U.S.

“This is America’s hour to become energy independent,” she said, adding the pipeline will also transport oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields.

Republican Sen. John Barrasso said the main issue is energy security.

“Canadian oil is a far better alternative to oil from Venezuela, the Middle East or West Africa, areas of the world which don’t share our values and too often work against our American interest,” he said. “In contrast, Canada is a strong ally. Canada is America’s top trading partner and Canada already provides the United States with reliable and secure sources of energy.”

Opposing the bill, Democrat Sen. Jeff Merkley  said the critical issue is climate change and the need to reduce emissions.

“To protect the planet from catastrophic global warming, we need to leave four-fifths of the identified conventional fossil fuel reserves in the ground,” he said. “But building the Keystone pipeline would open the faucet to rapid exploitation of a massive new unconventional reserve – that is, the tarsands.”

“We must address this challenge of carbon pollution stewardship and we must do so now,” he said. “The answer is clear. Stewardship demands that we not build infrastructure to unlock the tarsands, the dirtiest source of oil on the planet.”