The Senate Takes on America’s Energy Future: On Pipelines, Posturing and Politics

by Bill Chameides | May 7th, 2014
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 1 comment

Updated May 8, 2014.

“Fair is foul and foul is fair,” it is said. Which is which in a proposed Senatorial horse-trade — a Keystone Xl pipeline in return for energy efficiency.

The Keystone Pipeline Push

Last week Senators John Hoeven (R-ND) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA) introduced legislation to green light the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport tar sands oil from Canada to refineries in the U.S. Gulf Coast. Because the pipeline crosses over an international border, the project requires approval from the State Department and ultimately the White House. But with the final ruling on Keystone in a holding pattern, supporters of the pipeline have become impatient.

“The five studies that have been conducted [on the pipeline project], as required by law, are complete. It is time to stop studying and start building,” Sen. Landrieu said. “The legislation Senator Hoeven and I have introduced will green-light the construction of the pipeline immediately.”

Turns out that the foreign commerce clause in the Constitution apparently [pdf] gives Congress the authority to approve or nix the project on its own. So now the question is, how will it fare in Congress?

The Expected Vote 

As of this writing, Sens. Hoeven and Landrieu have been able to line up some 57 supporters of the bill, all 45 of the Senate’s Republicans and 12 Democrats. (See side box.)

Senate Democratic Co-Sponsors of Keystone XL Bill
Asterisks denote senators who are up for re-election in 2014
Sen. Mark Begich [D-AK] *
Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA)
Sen. Joe Donnelly [D-IN]
Sen. Kay Hagan [D-NC] *
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp [D-ND]
Sen. Mary L. Landrieu [D-LA] *
Sen. Joe Manchin III [D-WV]
Sen. Claire McCaskill [D-MO]
Sen. Mark L. Pryor [D-AR] *
Sen. Jon Tester [D-MT]
Sen. John E. Walsh [D-MT]
Sen. Mark R. Warner [D-VA] *

If 57 is all the bill’s supporters can garner, the whole exercise will be little more than stagecraft, since 60 votes would be needed to cut off debate and bring it to a vote, as well as override a possible presidential veto. Although it would perhaps provide a bit of conservative cover for the five Democrats co-sponsoring the bill who are up for reelection.

To get to the magic 60, the bill’s supporters will need to find three additional Democrats. Republicans had thought they would likely be found among the five Dems who voted last year in favor of a non-binding proposal in support of the project but who have yet to support the bill:

  • Sen. Michael Bennet (Colorado),
  • Sen. Chris Coons (Delaware),
  • Sen. Tom Carper (Delaware),
  • Sen. Tim Johnson (South Dakota) and
  • Sen. Bill Nelson (Florida).

Indeed on Sunday Senator Manchin predicted the bill would ultimately garner all five of those Democrats, bringing the tally to 62 votes.

Showing a bit of bayou bravado, Sen. Landrieu claimed that the veto threat doesn’t bother the bill’s supporters: “I do not know what the president is going to do, but we have an obligation to do what we think is right for the country,” she said.

Keystone opponents, on the other hand, say that they aren’t too worried about the Senate vote. “We see this as a purely political move,” Jane Kleeb, director of Bold Nebraska, said in a media call last week.

And one by one, the target Democrats have been coming out in opposition of the bill. CNN reported Monday night that three of the pivotal Democrats (Nelson, Coons and Johnson) have announced they will vote against the measure. According to E&E Daily, Carper and Bennet are the remaining undecided votes on the bill, leaving just two possible yea votes for the Keystone bill and not enough to reach 60. The latest vote counts have led CNN (and others) to conclude that the “Keystone bill is likely to fail in the Senate.”

The Energy Efficiency Exercise

Meanwhile on the other side of the aisle, Democrats have been pushing a greener energy agenda — the bipartisan energy efficiency bill from Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Rob Portman (R-OH) that would, among other things, “boost energy efficiency in buildings, industry and in federal agencies.” The bill, despite being in the running several times, has yet to make it to the floor. (More here.) Yesterday, Shaheen-Portman cleared a major hurdle when the Senate, in a 79–20 vote, invoked cloture to at least consider the bill.

But as was the case last year, the supporters of the bill fear that Republicans will be able to kill the bill by attaching to it “poison pill” amendments. Last year the bill died when Republicans insisted on amendments that would kill or curtail Obamacare.

A Compromise or a Deal With the Devil?

In an attempt to get Shaheen-Portman back on track, Reid has offered a compromise: He will allow a vote to go forward on the Hoeven-Landrieu Keystone bill if the Republicans will pony up enough support to pass a clean Shaheen-Portman without poison-pill amendments.

Such a compromise would no doubt bring “strange screams of death” from many environmentalists who see the Keystone XL pipeline as the line in the sand that must not be crossed. But the odds of it happening seem pretty slim.

While an Obamacare rider appears to not be in the works this year, amendments to “expand exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), hamstring U.S. EPA climate rules and bar Congress from ever imposing a carbon tax” are on the Republican agenda. Such amendments would almost certainly send Democratic votes scurrying and thus, once again, scuttle the bill.

While Minority Leader Mitch McConnell maintains that his party’s insistence on amendments is just about letting “our constituents have a say for once,” Senator Reid perceives a more porcine quality to it all:

“[W]orking with my Senate Republican colleagues reminds me of chasing one of these little pigs in a greased pig contest… they’re going to say, ‘Because we don’t get our amendments, we’re not going to vote to get off the bill.’ It’s happened time and time again. We waste hours and hours.”

And it wasn’t just ​Republicans Reid blamed for putting up roadblocks to the energy efficiency bill. Big money came under fire too as groups like the Koch-affiliated Americans for Prosperity apparently encouraged ($ub req’ed) senators’ opposition to the bipartisan energy efficiency legislation.

All this senatorial posturing and strategizing are more than likely to end up being one more scene in the crazy dramedy I like to call Congress Ponders Its Energy Future. A production in which much of the pondering is reminiscent of navel-gazing, and the dialog, in the words of an infamous Scot, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Update: May 8, 2014

The vote to advance Shaheen-Portman to the Senate floor has been set tentatively for Monday evening.  The prospects of a positive outcome are slim. More here: “Barring unforeseen developments, last rites for Shaheen-Portman coming” ($ub req’ed)

filed under: energy, energy efficiency, faculty, fossil fuels, policy, politics
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1 Comment

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  1. Nick Tedesco
    May 7, 2014

    I’m optimistic that fossil fuel projects like the keystone xl pipeline will be increasingly avoided as prices for renewable energy continue to fall. Politicians and corporations will finally see that they can save money and save face by going green.


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