WASHINGTON – The House of Representatives approved a bill as expected on Wednesday declaring that a presidential permit was not needed to approve the Canada-to-Nebraska leg of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a move that would take a decision on the project away from the Obama administration.
The Republican-controlled House voted 241-175, with less support from Democrats than during the most recent attempt to speed up pipeline approval.
The bill faces an uphill battle because it would have to pass the Senate with enough votes to overcome a promised veto from President Barack Obama.
"We've waited 1,700 days for this project," Fred Upton, Republican of Michigan, said as the floor debate wound down, adding that moving oil by pipeline was "safer and more economical" than other methods.
A series of amendments, some dealing with pipeline safety and the cost of cleaning up potential pipeline spills, were defeated along party lines.
The White House's Office of Management and Budget said in a memo on Tuesday that the House bill "conflicts with long-standing Executive branch procedures" and that Obama's advisers would recommend a veto.
TransCanada Corp's pipeline would link Alberta's oil sands production with refineries and ports along the U.S. Gulf Coast. The pipeline would transport about 830,000 barrels per day and cost some $5.3 billion to construct.
The Alberta-to-Nebraska leg needs presidential approval because it crosses a national border. It has been pending with the administration since 2008 and is now undergoing a second round of review by the State Department.
The House legislation states that the environmental impact studies already completed would be sufficient to approve the project without the need for additional review, and also calls for legal challenges to the pipeline to be filed within 60 days.
"What this boils down to is breaking through bureaucratic hurdles and making this project a priority," said Jeff Denham, a California Republican.
The pipeline's southern leg, for Texas to Oklahoma, is more than halfway built.
The project has been hailed by the energy industry as part of the U.S. push toward energy independence. It is also supported by many unions because it would provide thousands of construction jobs.
Environmentalists have vociferously opposed the pipeline, saying it would raise greenhouse gas levels and lock the United States into long-term dependence on fossil fuels.
PRAISE FOR VOTE
The Center for American Progress said the House bill "would short-circuit the evaluation of the health and environmental threats posed by approval of the Keystone XL pipeline."
Oil industry lobbyists at the American Petroleum Institute praised Wednesday's vote.
"This pipeline is clearly in the national interest and most Americans agree," Jack Gerard, API's president, said in a statement. "After four comprehensive federal reviews and a Nebraska review, the analysis is unwavering: Keystone XL is environmentally sound."
Wednesday's vote was the fifth time the House has voted in favor of speeding up pipeline approval in recent years.
The 19 Democrats who voted for the measure were far fewer than the 69 who backed a similar bill in April 2012.
"It's finally occurring to official Washington that Keystone is the Number One priority for the environmental movement, and we are beginning to really see just who is willing to fight for the climate," said Bill McKibben, founder of the green group 350.org.
In Canada, a top government official said on Wednesday that further delays to Keystone and another pipeline would impede economic growth in that nation.
In an appearance before a Canadian Senate committee, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was asked to assess the impact of delaying the Canada-to-Nebraska leg of Keystone and of not building Enbridge Inc's Northern Gateway pipeline in Western Canada.
"It would impede growth," Flaherty replied.