Washington, U.S. | — The US House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a bill approving construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, setting up a confrontation with President Obama, who has vowed to veto the measure.
The bill, which passed the senate last month, headed to Mr. Obama’s desk Wednesday night.
Mr. Obama’s expected veto of the bill will not represent a rejection of the pipeline itself. Because the pipeline crosses an international border — with Canada — the president retains the authority to make the final decision on whether to build it.
Congressional Republicans chose the Keystone bill as the first measure to send to Mr. Obama this year in order to use his expected rejection of it as a political weapon against Democrats.
“Instead of listening to the people, the president is standing with a bunch of left-fringe extremists and anarchists,” Speaker John A. Boehner said. “The president needs to listen to the American people and say ‘yes, let’s build the Keystone pipeline.’ ”
The president has a 10-day window to act on the bill, which passed the House by a vote of 270 to 152. Twenty-nine Democrats voted with Republicans in favour of the measure.
While it drew bipartisan support, it is not expected to draw the two-thirds majority necessary to override a veto.
The clash over Keystone is expected to continue for some time.
The proposed 1,179-mile pipeline, which would carry heavily polluting petroleum from the oil sands of Alberta to ports and refineries on the Gulf Coast, has emerged as a symbol for Democrats’ and Republicans’ fierce fight over energy, climate change and the economy.
Republicans and the oil industry say the project would create jobs and provide economic growth. Environmental activists have fought the project for years, saying it would harm the environment and could contribute to climate change.
Despite the debate over the pipeline, and its potency as a symbol of energy and environmental policy, experts have said repeatedly that the symbolism vastly outweighs its substance.
A State Department environmental review last year concluded that construction of the pipeline would not lead to a significant increase of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, and the number of jobs created by construction of the pipeline represents less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the total economy.
Still, environmentalists who have spent years marching and rallying to protest the pipeline say they would take Mr. Obama’s expected veto as a sign that he will eventually reject the project.
“We are very encouraged that the president will veto this bill, and we are more confident than ever that he will soon reject this dirty and dangerous pipeline once and for all,” said Gene Karpinski, the president of the League of Conservation Voters.
The approval process for the pipeline has dragged on for years, but advocates on both sides of the fight are urging the president to make a final decision soon.
Mr. Obama has said that a key criterion for him in deciding on the pipeline will be whether its construction will contribute to climate change. He has put off his decision so a series of reviews can be completed, including the environmental impact review by the State Department and reviews by the heads of eight other agencies. The last of those reviews was completed last week.
People on both sides of the debate say that the president’s final decision on whether to build the pipeline could come soon.
“Merits of the pipeline aside, the timing for a veto is about perfect from the White House perspective, especially given their recent decision to open up the Atlantic to offshore drilling, which they contend shows they are pro-U.S. supply development,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton administration energy and climate aide, now with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Both sides are increasing their lobbying of the administration.
On Wednesday, a group of more than 90 leading scientists and economists, including a Nobel Prize honouree in economics, a Nobel Prize laureate in physics and lead authors of reports written by the Nobel Prize recipients of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sent a letter to Mr. Obama, urging him to reject the project on the grounds that it could contribute to new development in the Canadian oil sands, thus unlocking more fossil fuels.
While the State Department’s environmental review of the project concluded that it would not significantly increase the rate of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, an Environmental Protection Agency letter to the State Department last week emphasized that the recent drop in global oil prices might mean that construction of the pipeline could spur increased development of the Canadian oil sands — and thus increase such emissions.
The E.P.A. said that given lower oil prices, companies might be less likely to develop in the oil sands, because it would be costly for them to ship the oil by rail. But the presence of the pipeline, which offers an inexpensive way to move the oil to market, could increase the likelihood that companies would extract from the oil sands even when prices are low.
On Tuesday, the Canadian ambassador to the United States, Gary Doer, sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, questioning the E.P.A.’s findings.
“One is left with the conclusion that there has been significant distortion and omission to arrive at E.P.A.’s conclusions,” he wrote. “As compared to rail, Keystone represents lower greenhouse gas emissions as well as lower environmental and safety risks.”
Some lawmakers have begun expressing frustration that Congress has spent nearly a month debating a bill that they know will be dead on arrival when it reaches the president.
Representative Bobby L. Rush, Democrat of Illinois, said angrily that while the House took the time to debate the Keystone bill, the Department of Homeland Security is set to run out of money, as lawmakers are at an impasse over how to fund the agency.
“In just two weeks, the Department of Homeland Security will run out of money, putting all of the American people, our entire nation, at risk. Where are your priorities?” Mr. Rush said. “Why are we wasting time on this?”