WASHINGTON - Newly empowered Republicans keen to strike a symbolic blow against President Barack Obama's divisive energy policy have an opening salvo: the controversial Keystone pipeline transporting Canadian tar-sands oil to U.S. refineries.
Tuesday's midterm elections ushered in a new Republican majority in the Senate, and incoming leader Senator Mitch McConnell is believed to have enough votes to overcome blocking tactics by Democrats when he puts forward legislation requiring approval of the $5.3-billion project.
The 1,179-mile (1,897-kilometer) Keystone XL pipeline has been under consideration since Obama took office six years ago, serving as a rallying cry for Republicans -- and some Democrats in energy-industry states -- desperate to boost U.S. oil and gas production and create jobs.
When the new Congress begins Jan. 3, its Republican leaders will press ahead with energy legislation.
Republicans elected to the Senate this week support Keystone, as do all Republicans currently in the chamber.
And Democratic senators in Alaska, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia wrote Obama last April urging him to use his executive authority to push the process forward.
Good news for Canadian jobs & economy: it looks like the new US Senate will have the 60+ votes needed to ensure that Keystone XL is approved— Jason Kenney ن (@kenneyjason) November 5, 2014
The bipartisan grouping would give McConnell the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner penned an op-ed in Thursday's Wall Street Journal laying out a package of pro-energy bills, including on Keystone, that will get early votes and "will mean lower energy costs for families and more jobs for American workers."
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus predicted that Obama would sign Keystone legislation.
"I think the pressure -- he's going to be boxed in on that, and I think it's going to happen," Priebus told MSNBC.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday it would "consider" legislation approving the construction, but sidestepped whether Obama would veto such a bill should it pass the House and Senate.
Obama has said he would only approve Keystone if it was shown to have minimal carbon emissions impact.
The State Department, which has authority over Keystone because of its international link, released a review in January finding that the project's carbon emissions would not be significant.
A Litigation Hitch in Nebraska
But there is a hitch, one that Obama noted Wednesday in a press conference where he said "there's an independent process" that he intends to let "play out."
The proposed pipeline route goes through Nebraska, where a judge is considering litigation on whether state lawmakers short-circuited the approval process in order to expedite Keystone's construction.
Tuesday's vote has clearly enhanced the project's momentum.
Canada's Minister of Employment and Social Development Jason Kenney on Wednesday hailed it as "good news" for Canada's economy.
"It looks like the new U.S. Senate will have the 60+ votes needed to ensure that Keystone XL is approved," Kenney tweeted.
The original price tag was $7 billion but the portion requiring presidential approval is $5.3 billion, after TransCanada separated a southern segment that needed no presidential action and is now under construction.
Critics, including environmental groups, say the pipeline will have minimal economic benefits and warn that a spill could have a disastrous environmental impact, but supporters argue the pipeline is safer and more eco-friendly than transporting oil by rail.
Republicans point to the State Department report saying Keystone would create 42,000 jobs during the two years of construction.
Obama acknowledged there was room for energy cooperation beyond Keystone, insisting "our energy sector is booming. And I'm happy to engage Republicans with additional ideas for how we can enhance that."
Congressman Fred Upton, who chairs the House Energy Committee, this year unveiled an energy "architecture of abundance" that would include a new modern energy infrastructure and expanded gas operations, like fracking in shale deposits.
Christopher Klyza, professor of environmental studies at Middlebury College, said environmental groups will go all out to convince Obama to block Keystone.
But "in the end I don't think he will go to the mat over this," Klyza told AFP.
"He is much more likely to protect the Environmental Protection Agency's climate change rules from congressional attacks."
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2014