WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Wednesday in favor of speeding up the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada for the fourth time in two years, but the Nebraska Republican who has championed the project knows the vote may not be the last.
The pipeline, put on hold by President Barack Obama earlier this year, has become an outsized political symbol heading into the November elections as Republicans use it to attack Obama’s economic and energy policies.
“I’ve been through the Keystone rodeo before,” said Representative Lee Terry, while also expressing optimism that this time, a bill he wrote might lead to a deal to advance TransCanada’s $7 billion pipeline.
A large group of House Democrats - 69 of 190 - backed the bill, giving Republicans new hope the Democratic-led Senate and Obama might be convinced to embrace the oil pipeline project.
Obama “knows the pipeline has broad and bipartisan support in Congress and among the American people,” House Speaker John Boehner said.
But Terry, a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, also recognized that his bill, which passed the House in a 293-127 vote as part of a broader bill to extend highway and infrastructure funding, faced a rough ride ahead.
The bill would strip Obama of his authority to rule on the cross-border pipeline. The White House said on Tuesday that Obama would veto the bill if it makes it to his desk.
The Democratic president, who has backed the southernmost portion of the line from Oklahoma to Texas, put a hold on the rest of the project earlier this year, insisting a portion of the pipeline in Nebraska needed more environmental review.
The House vote allows Boehner to begin negotiations with Senate Democrats over the temporary funding measure for road, rail and bridge projects.
TransCanada Corp’s $7 billion Keystone project is expected to be a major source of contention in those talks.
“We’ll keep swinging,” Terry vowed in an interview. “It may not be the last rodeo.”
Environmental groups have vehemently opposed Keystone because they argue the crude it would bring from Canada’s oil sands is dirtier than other types of crude oil.
They are concerned about the risk posed by spills from the pipeline, have contested estimates of jobs created by the project and raised awareness about the growth in U.S. exports of refined oil products.
“This is a plot to build a pipeline ... and then export that oil outside the United States,” said Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and Keystone critic.
Last year, thousands of protesters encircled the White House, and hundreds were arrested, focusing media scrutiny on the pipeline and helping prompt the administration’s second thoughts on the project.
The state of Nebraska was also concerned that the pipeline’s original route went through the sensitive Sandhills region and over a major aquifer.
The state government now supports a new route proposed by TransCanada [ID:nL2E8FBLIQ]. Some groups in the state said they planned a legal challenge.
The project will not tamp down surging gasoline prices, warned Steve Cohen, a Democratic lawmaker who has led criticism of the project in the House.
“That is hooey,” Cohen said on Wednesday. “It will simply mean more money for international oil companies.”
The House has been unable to agree on a long-term highway deal. Terry’s Keystone measure is attached to a 90-day stopgap funding bill that would revoke Obama’s authority over the pipeline project and instead require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to issue permits quickly.
The House and Senate now need to agree on how to go forward in order for the bill to reach Obama’s desk. In light of past Senate action on the measure, that could be a tough fight.
In March, the Senate agreed on a two-year, $109 billion plan for transportation programs. At that time, the Senate considered adding approval for Keystone to its highway bill, but the measure failed in a 56-42 vote, four short of the 60 votes needed to pass.
Obama took the unusual step of calling some senators directly before the vote, asking them to reject the proposal.
Still, 11 Democratic senators voted for the plan. Terry believes that negotiations on a short-term highway funding bill that includes Keystone could pass a House-Senate conference committee, which could make Obama rethink the veto threat.
“If we could get enough votes in the Senate, I could almost guarantee the White House would become more reasonable,” Terry said.
Additional reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Peter Cooney