The House passed a bill Wednesday that would approve the northern leg of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline by an act of law and take the decision out of President Obama's hands.
Members voted 241-175 in favor of H.R. 3, the Northern Route Approval Act. Republican supporters were joined by 19 Democrats, much less than the level of Democratic support in the last Congress.
A big reason for the drop in Democratic support is the GOP's new approach to the pipeline, which would move tar sands oil from Canada to the United States to be refined. Legislation in the last Congress set a deadline by which Obama had to decide on approving the project and passed with 47 Democrats in 2011.
"Last Congress, I voted for every piece of pro-Keystone pipeline legislation that was brought before this body," Rahall said. "Something's happened along the way between then and now. And that something is called a hijacking of this bill by the right wing."
Rahall and other Democrats added that they don't support a congressional grant of any permit to any company.
"It waives a permit, and it deems a permit application by a foreign company … for a major undertaking in the United States to be approved," he said of the bill. "We don't even do that for our domestic companies."
Earlier in the week, the White House said Obama would veto the bill, in large part because of the language eliminating the need for presidential approval of the pipeline. That veto, and Democratic opposition in the Senate, means the bill is unlikely to advance beyond the House.
Republicans said Democrats were overreacting to the bill and said other pipelines have been approved in similar ways in the past.
"This legislation, if passed, would be passed the same way that in 2004 the Alaska natural gas pipeline [was approved], which the entire body passed on a voice vote," Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) said.
Rahall offered an amendment to strike language removing the need for presidential approval, but the House rejected it in a 177 to 238 vote — 17 Democrats sided with Republicans in that vote.
More broadly, the bill gave members a chance to outline the many reasons they have listed over the years either in support of or opposition to the pipeline. Republicans cast the bill as one that creates jobs and helps boost energy supplies in the U.S., and one that President Obama has needlessly delayed for years.
"It creates American jobs. It increases our energy independence. It strengthens our national security, and it will contribute to lower gas prices," Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) said.
The GOP also said the government has had enough time to study the environmental impacts of the pipeline. "This delay has taken longer than it took the greatest generation to win World War II on both fronts," quipped Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), who noted that the application for the pipeline was filed five years ago.
But Democrats said the amount of tar sands oil that would be moved from Canada and refined in the United States would not have any measurable effect on the price of gas. They also downplayed the jobs impact of the pipeline and said there are still environmental problems associated with the project.
Two Democrats went to far as to say that any project promoting fossil fuels will only make global warming worse and will lead to more damaging storms.
"Experts tell us that this Keystone XL [pipeline] will triple production of the tar sands, and that's simply not consistent with any future scenario for avoiding catastrophic climate change," said House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).
"Any rational person who doesn't want more Hurricane Sandys or more Oklahoma hurricanes would recognize that we must focus on developing renewable energy sources, and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels," Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said.
Aside from Rahall's amendment, Democrats were given eight other chances to amend the bill. The House only accepted one of these, from Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), by unanimous consent. Cohen's language would require TransCanada to submit its oil spill response plan to the governors of each state in which the pipeline operates.
The House also accepted a lone Republican amendment from Rep. Randy Weber (Texas), which highlights State Department findings that say the Keystone pipeline is environmentally sound. Weber's language passed 246-168.
In the final vote, one member, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), voted "present." Amash's office said he supports construction of the pipeline but opposes singling out specific companies or people in legislation as this bill does.
Other amendments that were unsuccessfully sought by Democrats were from:
— Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), adding a finding that reliance on oil sands will increase greenhouse gas emissions and prevents the bill from taking effect until a presidential finding that TransCanada will offset these emissions. Failed 146-269.
— Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), requiring a study on the health impacts of increased air pollution caused by increased activities at refineries. Failed 177-239.
— Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), requiring an assessment on the vulnerabilities of the pipeline to terrorist attack. Failed 176-239.
— Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.), ensuring that TransCanada is subject to operation and maintenance oversight. Failed 182-234.
— Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), increasing the length of time for filing claims against the pipeline under the bill to one year, instead of six months. Failed 182-234.
— Judy Chu (D-Calif.), requiring a Government Accountability Office study on the projected costs of cleaning up a pipeline spill. Failed 185-231.
— Rush Holt (D-N.J.), requiring that oil moved through the pipeline must be used in the United States. Failed 162-255.