Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

What is Going On with the Keystone XL Pipeline?

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

It’s been a busy weekend for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and you might be wondering where things stand. The answer: chaos.

First, a little history. The pipeline is a 1,700-mile behemoth that is currently in the planning stages. It would take crude oil from Canada (harvested from the country’s tar sands) to refineries in Texas. The original route would have taken the pipeline through sensitive aquifer and prairie lands in Nebraska. Local opposition there was partly responsible for the Obama administration’s decision, in October, to delay the pipeline until after the Presidential election. It was seen as a victory for environmental groups and a defeat for the industry, and everyone pretty much considered the delay a done deal.

Everyone was wrong.

In October, Congress started working on an agreement to extend a payroll tax cut. These extended cuts would mean less money taken out of your paycheck towards Social Security. Both Republicans and Democrats want to extend the cut, but disagree on how much the cut should be and how it will be paid for. In late November, Republicans attached an ultimatum to the deal: if the tax cut is extended, the President must make a decision on the pipeline within 60 days.

“I guarantee you, the Keystone pipeline will be in that bill when it goes back to the Senate.” House speaker John Boehner warned on Friday. With a deadline looming and vacation approaching, the two sides of the Senate agreed to the deal Saturday morning in a rare show of bipartisan support, 89-10.

Boehner called the vote a “victory,” while the president of the Sierra Club called it “bullshit.” At a hastily arranged press conference in downtown Austin, Tom Smitty, the head of the environmental watchdog group Public Citizen, noted that “Obama has said repeatedly that including the pipeline in the payroll tax bill would get it vetoed. It’s time for Obama and the State Department to show some spine and remain true to their word.” It looked like a sure defeat for environmental groups not long after their earlier victory. (Some Democrats were quick to note after the deal was struck that it didn’t mean Obama would decide in favor of the pipeline, only that he would make a decision in 60 days.) Texas Senator John Cornyn lauded the vote, saying “this morning, the Senate took action where the President has punted.” Politico reports that “on a conference call Saturday, Boehner told House Republicans that they should support the bill, indicating that lawmakers would live to fight another day.”

But then something unexpected happened, again.

On Sunday, Republicans in the House who were expected to support the deal, said they weren’t happy with it. Despite the bill’s widespread support in the Senate, they said they weren’t satisfied with the tax cut extension only being for sixty days, and wanted a full year. (Everyone wants a full year extension, the disagreement is over how to pay for it.) The New York Times summed up the situation nicely:

“The surprising setback threatened the holiday plans of lawmakers and President Obama, deeply embarrassed Republican leaders in both chambers and raised the specter of a year-end tax increase that economists have warned could set back the already fragile economic recovery.”

Tonight the House is expected to take up a vote that could scuttle the Senate deal and send both houses back to the table. But the senate majority leader Harry Reid has already said he has no intention of bringing the senate back from vacation.  So what happens from here is anyone’s guess.

Map by NPR

A map of the existing and proposed Keystone XL pipelines


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