House Vote, Nebraska Court Decision Push Keystone XL Forward But Obama Continues To Dither

President Obama's decision on Keystone XL is apparently to delay things long enough so he doesn't have to decide at all.

Keystone XL Map

As last week ended, a vote in the House of Representatives and a decision from the Nebraska Supreme Court seemed to advance the cause of those who favor building the Keystone XL pipeline:

The House voted Friday to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, seizing on the momentum from a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling hours earlier that removed the last major legal obstacle to building the politically charged oil project.

Now the action moves to the Senate, which will take up its version of the Keystone bill next week. Taken together, the vote on the Hill and the court decision will put the issue squarely in the hands of President Barack Obama, who has put off making a decision on the Canada-to-U.S. oil artery during his six years in the White House.

In the legal ruling early Friday that rejected arguments from three anti-Keystone landowners, the Nebraska justices upheld a 2012 state law that allowed Republican Gov. Dave Heineman — rather than an independent commission — to approve Keystone’s route inside the state. That will let the State Department resume its almost-completed review of the pipeline, which the department halted in April amid uncertainty about the Nebraska case.

State Department officials have indicated it could still take months for Secretary John Kerry to offer his own judgment on whether building Keystone would be in the interests of the United States. Obama would have no deadline to make a final decision.

But environmentalists who have fought the pipeline for the past six years, savaging its projected 700,000-plus barrels of daily Canadian oil imports as anathema to the White House’s climate agenda, immediately vowed to ramp up the pressure on Obama and Kerry to say no. They pointed to an impassioned speech Kerry gave in December at a global climate conference in Lima, Peru, where he called global warming “everybody’s responsibility” and said that “if you’re a big developed nation and you’re not helping to lead, then you are part of the problem.”

“We are confident the President will stand with farmers, ranchers and tribal communities and reject Keystone XL once and for all,” said Bold Nebraska founder Jane Kleeb, whose group leads the anti-pipeline charge in the state. She said by email that the ruling “does clear the way for the State Department to complete their analysis and for federal agencies to weigh in on risks to water and climate. ”

Congress, meanwhile, is already moving to end the debate and greenlight the pipeline on its own, with 266 House members voting to approve the project, including 28 Democrats. The Senate set to take up its version of the bill next week.

“President Obama is now out of excuses for blocking the Keystone pipeline and the thousands of American jobs it would create,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement after the Nebraska ruling. “Finally, it’s time to start building.”

But the White House reiterated on Friday that Obama would veto the legislation, despite the elimination of the Nebraska case, which it had repeatedly cited to argue that it’s premature for Congress to step in.

“The State Department is examining the court’s decision as part of its process,” White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said in a statement. “As we have made clear, we are going to let that process play out. Regardless of the Nebraska ruling today, the House bill still conflicts with longstanding executive branch procedures regarding the authority of the president and prevents the thorough consideration of complex issues that could bear on U.S. national interests, and if presented to the President, he will veto the bill.”

Supporters of the bill don’t yet have the 67 Senate votes they would need to override a veto and have been scrambling to find the last few Democratic senators willing to push the legislation over the top.

The Senate is set to take up the Keystone XL debate this week and, while there is some hope that we might see a vote before Congress takes its brief recess for the Martin Luther King Jr Day holiday, it’s more likely that things will slow down a bit in the upper chamber. In many ways this will be the first real test for the promises that Majority Leader Mitch McConnnell has made about how he intended to depart from the way that Harry Reid had been running the Senate while Democrats were in charge of the body, and we’re likely to see Democrats test just how far the Senate GOP leadership is willing to allow the minority to go in asserting its voice in the body. For example, one of the primary Republican complaints during the course of Reid’s tenure was the extent to which he used his power to limit the ability of Republicans to offer amendments to bills. McConnell has said that he would be more liberal in allowing debate and amendment, but doing so will necessarily mean that debate will take longer and risks the possibility of a “poison pill” amendment being attached to the bill. At the same time, though, Republicans may want to take this extended time to allow them to pull together a veto proof majority in the Senate, although that seems unlikely at the moment and would not address the point that the House is still 23 votes short of being able to override a veto.

None of this seems likely to change the President’s mind, though, but the interesting thing about the Obama Administration’s position on Keystone is that it doesn’t really want to take a position. For six years now, they have engaged in one form or another of kicking the can down the road on the issue by delaying final decisions from the State Department or elsewhere with one excuse or another. Even a Presidential veto of the bill currently making its way through Congress would not really be the final word on the project. Many have speculated that the President doesn’t want to be held responsible for making any decision on this issue at all while he’s in office. Approving the project, which seems to make the most economic sense and which polling indicates most Americans support, would cause problems with a significant portion of the Democratic Party’s base. At the same time, though, blocking the project permanently would not play well with the public as a whole and would likely hurt Democrats in the south and middle west, not to mention potentially hurting the party in 2016. So, instead of making a decision the Administration continues to delay as long as possible, perhaps hoping that they can delay things long enough to leave the decision to the next President. I suppose it makes sense politically, but it’s not exactly the height of political leadership.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Economics and Business, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Tony W says:

    One wonders why the tar sands oil must pass through the US when a much shorter route to the open ocean would be via the pristine waters of Vancouver and Victoria BC.

  2. al-Ameda says:

    Ripped from the article headline:

    “But Obama Continues To Dither”

    That’s how the GOP characterizes Obama overtime they’re trying to bait him into taking an action that, (1) may not be called for or required at this time, or (2) one that they they think they can benefit from (politically). At this time I m pretty sure the bill the House passed has not been taken up by the Senate, so exactly what Obama is “dithering” on escapes me.

    As I’ve said before, I’d vote to pass it if only for the reason that this essentially unnecessary pipeline runs through Republican states.

  3. C. Clavin says:

    @ Doug…
    How does a libertarian support the Government taking US citizens land and giving it to a foreign corporation.
    Your ODS is strong.

  4. Slugger says:

    I am often puzzled by American politics. I see by this posting that some Nebraska landowners are opposed to the pipeline. I know that many Lakota people are also opposed. I read many conservatives who are opposed to the Kelo vs New London eminent domain decision, but I do not see these property rights advocates speaking against this pipeline. Is the pipeline going to avoid the tribal lands now?

  5. stonetools says:

    I’ve never seen a libertarian take a position that’s anti big business. Doug fits that profile perfectly.

  6. jewelbomb says:


    I read many conservatives who are opposed to the Kelo vs New London eminent domain decision, but I do not see these property rights advocates speaking against this pipeline.

    The problem is that you’re looking for ideological consistency within modern American conservatism. The only thing that might be considered a core-belief among these folks is that, if it pisses off liberals, they’re for it, and if the President supports it, they’re against it.

  7. bk says:

    “Obama has threatened to veto the measure” = “Obama continues to dither” in some parallel universe.

  8. C. Clavin says:

    Right? Doug ranted to no end about the Gubmint picking winners and losers during the Solyndra nonsense…a loan program that benefited many companies and oh-by-the-way made a $5-6B profit.
    But now taking away people’s land and giving it to a single corporation is cool.
    The inconsistency is jaw-dropping.

  9. Gustopher says:

    @Tony W:

    One wonders why the tar sands oil must pass through the US when a much shorter route to the open ocean would be via the pristine waters of Vancouver and Victoria BC.

    It would then have to cross mountains, which I assume would be a lot riskier for pipeline construction and maintenance than staying on flat land.

    However, now that the northwest passage is open year round due to global warming, I don’t see why they can’t use a northern port…

  10. Console says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Most libertarians in America are right leaning and fall under the same tendencies as all the other movement conservatives. They can’t resist hippy punching. Ideological consistency or even being right be damned.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    Maybe the thinking is that Louisiana and East Texas are already toxic waste dumps, as is much of the Gulf, so what the hell.

    So-called conservatives show their hand on this, as pointed out above. They claim to be against Big Government, but what they really are is slaves to Big Money. When Big Government serves Big Money, conservatives are happy. When Big Government serves regular people, especially minorities, they are against Big Government.

    The constants are 1) Hostility to minorities, 2) Servility toward Big Money.

    You just have to dismiss 90% of what conservatives claim to be for. They work for Big Money and they despise anyone unlike themselves. Once you have that down you see the underlying consistency of conservatives.

    Let’s test the theory:

    1) Conservatives hate Obamacare. Why? It helps minorities.
    2) Conservatives hate gun laws. Why? They buy guns to “protect” themselves from minorities and gun sales feed Big Money.
    3) Conservatives hate gays. Why? They’re a minority.
    4) Conservatives hate environmental regulation. Why? It limits Big Money.
    5) Conservatives hate banking and financial regulation. Why? It limits Big Money.
    6) Conservatives hate immigrants. Why? They’re minorities.
    7) But conservatives won’t pass effective immigration reform. Why? Because a semi-open border serves Big Money.
    8) Conservatives love the military. Why? It kills brown people overseas and feeds Big Money.

    When you see inconsistency it’s because there’s a conflict between Big Money and racism, as is the case with immigration.

    Everything else conservatives claim about themselves: that they favor small government, that they believe in individual liberty, that they are traditionalists, that they favor states over feds, that they oppose legislating from the bench, all of that is bulls-it. The only issue I can think of where conservatives actually have a position that is not essentially about Big Money or racism, is abortion.

  12. Guarneri says:

    Why do you have to not show one bit of investment savvy, but also bald faced lie, Clavin?

    The interest net of loan loss figure is about $30mm. That’s on 30-40 billion in loans depending on who you read. That’s next to zero as a practical matter. However it’s still pure bullshit. It doesn’t count cost of capital, or raw material. That would put it into the red. And once you are in the business of not fully accounting for costs you probably don’t fully burden with people and other admin costs as well.

    But wait! There’s more!

    The profit you cite is a prospective number for loans to be retired some 15 years from now. So far only about 10% of principal has been returned. In other words, the projection isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. The SEC would sue my ass off if I tried to get away with such bogus claims. Worse, this capital is really venture capital, not loan capital. It should get a return of 20+%. Even if all turns out as the Feds hope it’s a paltry return.

    I don’t think you should be commenting on the financing for a lemonade stand, much less something complicated like this.

  13. Tony W says:

    @Gustopher: Perhaps – but I think it’s more to do with Canadians being much smarter than the average American. While Alberta has grown rich on their tar sands, our neighbors to the north would never tolerate Whistler or Banff sullied with a big pipeline running through. That’s more of an American thing, particularly if we can run it through tribal lands so it does not affect anybody important.

  14. walt moffett says:

    For those who care about such things, courtesy of the National Wildlife Federation, a map of current and future pipelines from the Alberta tar sands. The routes to either British Columbia port will make the Asian markets very happy.

    The Gulf terminus happens to be where a lot of the US oil refiners are.

  15. An Interested Party says:

    The only issue I can think of where conservatives actually have a position that is not essentially about Big Money or racism, is abortion.

    And even with that issue, many of them seem to care more about life in the womb rather than that same life once it leaves the womb…

  16. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Tony W: Good question. And f or those who are wondering, there’ even an oil refinery in Anacortis, Washington, just at the bottom of the straight to handle the trans-shipments.

    Not that I am interested in having that sludge end up polluting Puget Sound–but I don’t live there anymore, so it’s not my problem.

  17. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @C. Clavin: Doug–like all conservatives that I know (allowing that since I don’t know 100% of conservatives, I may be overestimating) is only against the government picking winners that he doesn’t want to see win. No ideological inconsistency there at all.

    Move on folks, nothing to see here.

  18. rjs says:

    even if Obama’s veto is overridden, it’s not certain or even likely that the pipeline would be built anymore…as we pointed out in November, the Canadian Energy Research Institute estimated that oil-sands projects need a price of $85 a barrel to be profitable in the current cheapest (in situ) method, and that new mines will require $105 a barrel oil to be profitable; other estimates of costs for tar sand extraction are similar…terminal prices for West Canada Select (heavy) crude oil have been below $35 per barrel all week, and Canadian projects are shutting down even faster than those in the US, and some of that started even before prices fell; Norwegian oil giant Statoil pulled out of their tar sands project in September…in the past year, Shell, the French oil giant Total, and SunCor of Canada all cancelled their tar sands projects…even China’s CNPC International pulled out of the oil sands and withdrew its support for Enbridge’s Gateway project to deliver tar sands oil to the west coast…and with current tar sands production already flowing into the US through the Alberta Clipper pipeline to Wisconsin and the Flanigan South pipeline through Illinois & points south, there may not be enough additional tar sands output to justify construction of another redundant pipeline…so if approval of the pipeline from the US is forthcoming, and there is no tar sands oil to be shipped, it now seems quite likely that TransCanada would either delay or cancel the Keystone XL project altogether..

  19. Tyrell says:

    Sec. Kerry: “if you are a big, developing country and you aren’t helping lead then you are a part of the problem”. I am not sure how this pipeline relates to climate change. I do understand and see how it could cause damage through leaks, explosions, and construction involving cutting trees and clearing paths through woods. The US has done its share by far through reducing gas consumption for the last several years, developing new types of engines such as ev, hydrogen, and gas vapor. The air is cleaner than ever. Now it is time for countries like China, India, Pakistan, and Somalia to step up to the plate.
    Part of the problem is that the news does not fully report the effects of solar storms (sunspots), solar flares, the northern lights, volcanic activity, polar shifts, magnetic field deviations, and unexplained phenomenon on the atmosphere. This also does not include the secret activities and experiments of the government.
    Our leaders must continually encourage private innovation and government transparency. Over regulation of businesses and technology discourages growth, costs money and jobs.

  20. michael reynolds says:

    @C. Clavin:

    See, Clavin, your problem is that you don’t understand double entry accounting. It works like this:

    The stock market is very, very important. . . unless the president is black.
    There’s only one unemployment rate. . . . unless the president is black.
    Repayments and funding can be counted. . . .unless the president is black.

    All data must be considered in the light of this threshold question: is the president black? That’s why we’re all still so terribly sad with the stock market at record highs and unemployment down to the same level Ronald Reagan achieved under much easier circumstances. If only Mitt Romney were in the White House we could celebrate. Imagine how excited we’d be at record low gas prices if Mitt was The Man! Sadly, there’s that black guy.

  21. C. Clavin says:

    You’ve been absolutely wrong about everything for 6 years…at least.
    I really don’t take you seriously.
    You probably shouldn’t either.

  22. wr says:

    @Guarneri: “I don’t think you should be commenting on the financing for a lemonade stand, much less something complicated like this.”

    I think we can all bow to your expertise in running sidewalk lemonade stands. It’s anything beyond that it’s obvious you know nothing about.

  23. C. Clavin says:

    @michael reynolds:
    I think you overstate the black issue, though no doubt it’s there.
    Remember…they spent years and millions chasing Clinton only to find a blow job.
    It really just comes down to their embarrassment at being incompetent at everything they claim to be the best at.
    They were the only ones that could protect us. Only not really.
    They were the only ones who understood the economy. Only not so much.
    They had a good idea for health care reform…but weren’t interested in passing it…and are realizing now that they fvcked up.
    The problem with arrogance is that you have to back it up. And all they can do is con their dupes.
    Doug, Jenos, bill, Drew, JKB…still chanting the party line in spite of every single indicator to the contrary.
    You could respect them if they acknowledged even a single success…but they can’t.

  24. anjin-san says:

    @michael reynolds:

    they favor small government

    Ban hoodies now! Ban hoodies now!

  25. C. Clavin says:

    @anjin-san: @Tyrell:

    Part of the problem is that the news does not fully report the effects of solar storms (sunspots), solar flares, the northern lights, volcanic activity, polar shifts, magnetic field deviations, and unexplained phenomenon on the atmosphere. This also does not include the secret activities and experiments of the government.

    Yup…that’s part of the problem…fer reals.

  26. michael reynolds says:

    @C. Clavin:
    Republican elites hated Clinton. They feared him. But the lower class rank and file always kind of liked him. That’s why the impeachment effort was such a misfire. People like Gingrich didn’t understand that Clinton was a lovable rascal, even to Republicans.

    The reaction to Obama is quite different. It’s not the elites, and it’s not fear. It’s a lower-class obsession. Obama repels and horrifies these people, these Floracks and Jenos’ and the rest. He embodies so many different things they hate. He’s black, but he’s also lacking all the cliches that racists use to reassure themselves. He’s not just black, he’s smart and cool and eerily well-adjusted. He’s happy. They so need him to be angry, and he’s not. They need him to do something to fit the pattern they expect to see. And he doesn’t. He’s their worst nightmare: he’s black and he is clearly, undeniably, superior to them. And, boy, do they hate that.

    That’s where I see the difference. Even an Alabama redneck could attach to Bill Clinton. He was a good ol’ boy. But Obama is a complete alien to these people. He’s dangerous to their deeply-held assumptions. He’s the black man who makes them feel like outsiders.

    It’ll take probably 20 years before historians are giving Obama a solid B+/A-. He’s not FDR, but given the challenges he’s faced, he’s done a good job. The country’s been lucky to have him, a fact they’ll figure out in a generation.

  27. C. Clavin says:
  28. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    Obama repels and horrifies these people, these Floracks and Jenos’ and the rest.

    FWIIW, while Jenos is an annoying troll most of the time and tends towards thread derailmends he’s never been, to my knowledge, a racist.

  29. gVOR08 says:


    This also does not include the secret activities and experiments of the government.

    Area 51 or something like it is to blame for global warming? Do pray share with us the insider information that led you to that conclusion.

  30. wr says:

    @Ebenezer_Arvigenius: “FWIIW, while Jenos is an annoying troll most of the time and tends towards thread derailmends he’s never been, to my knowledge, a racist.”

    To the extent that I doubt he actually believes in or cares about anything he posts here, except in terms of the irritation it provokes, you could well be right.

    But if we take him at his word, then every time a black person and white person get into an altercation, it was the black person’s fault, and any minor belief of danger to a white means that the black person’s death is justified. You can call that racist or not.

  31. al-Ameda says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I honestly believe that in 10 to 15 years the historians and opinionista are going to look back at the Obama presidency and they (except the Palinista) are going to be, and ought to be, embarrassed. They’re going to see quite clearly that about half of America was on an irrational hate-the-Black-Socialist-President binge, and that President Obama implemented the correct economic policies, ones that kept our severely shaken economy from plummeting from a Great Recession into another Great Depression.

    I hope that Democrats provide Republicans with the same generous level of good faith negotiation that Republicans afforded Obama in the preceding 6 years. The bar has been set low.

  32. Moosebreath says:


    Similar to your views are those of Jon Chait. His conclusion:

    “It is my view that history will be very generous with Barack Obama, who has compiled a broad record of accomplishment through three-quarters of his presidency. But if it isn’t, it will be for a highly ironic reason: Our historical memory tends to romance, too. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fatherly reassurance, a youthful Kennedy tossing footballs on the White House lawn, Reagan on horseback—the craving for emotional sustenance and satisfying drama runs deep. Though the parade of Obama’s Katrinas will all be (and mostly already have been) consigned to the forgotten afterlife of cable-news ephemera, it is not yet certain whether this president can bind his achievements into any heroic narrative.”

  33. michael reynolds says:

    @C. Clavin:
    Yeah, it’s a constant feature. Liberals have certain core political (as opposed to human) weaknesses: they are stuck with reality, they are stuck with nuance, they see both sides.

    Conservatives no longer live within reality, and that has freed them up politically. The money guys at the top sometimes understand reality but have zero resistance to lying for profit, and the hoi polloi of the GOP no longer even know what reality is. They are automata programmed by Roger Ailes and Rush Limbaugh – two money guys. The Republican masses have as much intellectual independence and judgment as the sieg heiling drones at the Nuremberg rallies. I’d say they were sheep, but sheep are harmless.

  34. Jay Skyler says:

    @Tony W:

    Because the First Nations tribes won’t let a pipeline go through their land and the Canadian Government lacks the authority to force them. Due to First Nation opposition, it’s basically impossible to build pipelines in most of Canada. Some fossil fuels folks even like to call it a landlocked country.

  35. Tony W says:

    @Jay Skyler: yep, like I said – Canadians are smarter than us.

  36. michael reynolds says:

    @Jay Skyler:
    Wait, is that true? Then it strikes me that as a political tactic opposition groups should be playing that up. You could give it a nationalistic, ‘Hey, the Canadians are too good for their own pipeline?” edge.

  37. Tyrell says:

    @gVOR08: see: chemtrails

  38. Tyrell says:

    A recent poll shows close to 60% of the people are in favor of the pipeline. When the gas price gets back up to $3.60 / gal. that number will jump up to around 80%.