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February 12, 2015 9:25 AM, EST

House OKs Keystone XL Pipeline, But Presidential Veto Looms

Scott Dalton/Bloomberg News
Congressional Republicans achieved an elusive legislative goal Feb. 11, sending a bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline to President Obama.

Yet after three years of effort, the victory is somewhat hollow as falling oil prices and an improving job market conspire to weaken any practical or political payoffs.

The U.S. House passed the measure 270-152. The Senate passed it last month.

Obama has vowed to veto the legislation because it would circumvent his administration’s review of the pipeline. Neither chamber appears to have the two-thirds vote needed to override a veto.

“This allegedly important policy issue has become almost nothing but politics, save for those who build and operate it, on both sides,” said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who tracks energy issues. “It’s policy significance comes close to nil, especially in our current oil environment.”

TransCanada Corp., a Calgary, Alberta-based pipeline company, applied to build Keystone XL in September 2008. While a southern section is up and running, the northern leg needs a presidential permit because it crosses the U.S.-Canada border.

The project, in limbo during a State Department review, has galvanized environmental advocates and led to massive rallies around the White House urging Obama to reject the pipeline as a threat to the climate.

Supporters say it will create thousands of jobs and improve U.S. energy security.

“Let’s pass this bill this afternoon. Let’s send it to the president,” Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said during debate on the bill. “Let’s hope that he might reconsider a proposed veto on this bill. Let’s deal with the issue. And let’s get it done.”

The House vote was the 11th on Keystone legislation in four years. Until this most recent measure, the efforts failed. House lawmakers had to take up the bill again after the Senate amended an earlier version.

House Speaker John Boehner is planning an “enrollment” or signing ceremony Feb. 13, said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), as the president pro tempore, also will sign. How soon after the bill will be sent to the White House hadn’t been decided as of Feb. 11, Steel said.

Once that happens, the Constitution provides 10 days, excluding Sundays, for a president to sign a bill. A veto occurs when a president returns the unsigned legislation within 10 days to the chamber in which it originated, typically with a message explaining why.

Obama probably will retain the power to decide the fate of the $8 billion project. While he’s pledged to veto the Keystone bill on process grounds, he hasn’t indicated what his decision will be on the project itself.

He must choose between angering his allies in the environmental movement or the Canadian government, which is looking to Keystone to support oil sands producers in Alberta.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), a member of the energy committee, backed the vote on Keystone.

“It’s good public policy,” even if Obama is going to reject the bill, Barton said in a phone interview before the vote. “It shows how rigidly he’s in the clutches of radical environmental groups that he keeps opposing it.”

The dynamics of the debate have shifted considerably since July 2011 when the House first voted to advance Keystone.

Back then, oil traded about $100 a barrel and Obama faced a tough re-election in an economy yet to fully shake the effects of a deep recession.

Now oil is half that cost, about $50 a barrel, and Obama is two years into his second term. Unemployment fell to 5.7% in January from 9.1% in July 2011.

Polls show Americans supporting the pipeline outnumber those who oppose it, though the political payoff for Republicans in backing it probably is small.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll last month found 34% of respondents wanted the pipeline built now, while 61% said the review should continue. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found 41% favored the project.

More than a third — 37% —said they didn’t know enough to have an opinion.