Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Senate approves Keystone XL pipeline bill

Measure, which faces presidential veto, sets up first of many battles with White House over energy policy

The Republican-controlled Senate on Thursday approved a bipartisan bill to construct the Keystone XL oil pipeline, defying a presidential veto threat and setting up the first of many battles with the White House over energy and the environment.

The Keystone XL Pipeline Approval Act was approved by a vote of 62-36 after a similar bill passed the House three weeks ago. Nine Democrats joined with 53 Republicans to back the measure.

This bill "is an important accomplishment for the country," said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "We are hoping the president upon reflection will agree to sign on to a bill that the State Department said could create up to 42,000 jobs and the State Department said creates little to no impact on the environment."

"We hope President Obama will now drop his threat to veto this common-sense bill that would strengthen our energy security and create thousands and thousands of new, good-paying American jobs," said Republican House Speaker John Boehner.

Most Democrats framed the bill as gift to a foreign oil company that would have little benefit for the American people, because much of the oil would be exported. They tried and failed to get amendments on the bill to construct the pipeline with U.S. steel, ban exports of the oil and the products refined from it, and protect water resources.

The Senate agreed to add an energy efficiency measure, and went on the record saying climate change was not a hoax and the oil sands should be subject to a tax that helps pay for oil spill cleanups. Oil sands are currently exempt.

"This bill is a disgrace," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the Senate environment committee. "We tried on our side to make this a better bill and they turned us away."

Environmentalists also blasted the Senate bill.

"After nearly a month of debate on this doomed bill, Republican leadership has succeeded in showcasing their denial of climate science and dutiful devotion to oil money," Luisa Abbott Galvao, an associate at Friends of the Earth, told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement. 

The differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill will be reconciled before the legislation moves to President Barack Obama's desk — Obama has already said he would veto the bill.

Obama wants the State Department to first finish determining whether the pipeline is in the national interest, something it plans to do in a final report.

Obama is then expected to make his own decision soon on Keystone. The State Department has told other federal agencies they have until Feb. 2 to conclude their assessment of the project.

The final approval for the pipeline, which would transport oil from Canada's tar sands to the U.S. Gulf coast energy hub, rests with Obama because it crosses an international border. 

The 1,179-mile pipeline has been mired in controversylegal challenges and delays for five years.

The White House has faced pressure from both sides of the Keystone debate.

Supporters of the project say it will create thousands of jobs and reduce U.S. reliance on oil imports from countries that are less friendly to the U.S. than Canada. A previous , review by the State Department estimated that Keystone would create about 35 permanent jobs.

Keystone critics say the oil would not increase energy independence because it is slated to be exported to foreign markets. They add that Keystone would significantly increase carbon emissions — hastening climate change. 

Other than its effect on global warming, critics warned of the risks posed by oil spills.

In 2010 tar sands oil spilled near Michigan's Kalamazoo River. Four years later, the spill, which residents say led to illness and death, is still not completely cleaned up.

Because of its thick texture, tar sands oil must be mixed with chemicals, producing a mixture called diluted bitumen, to allow its transport through pipelines. Canada's Alberta-based tar sands fields have been linked to high cancer rates and other illnesses.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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