This afternoon the Senate began voting on the 30 amendments to the long-stalled $109B highway bill. Environmentalists are celebrating two of the outcomes: the Senate passed the Gulf RESTORE Act, and rejected a measure to approve construction of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from Canada’s Alberta Tar Sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The final vote on the bill itself is expected next week.
Under the RESTORE Act, the five Gulf States will receive 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines BP paid for the 2010 oil spill, with as much as $10-$20 billion would go toward restoring both the economic and environmental health of the Gulf Coast. Without an act of Congress, the funds would go directly to the U.S. Treasury. (Click here for Audubon’s handy guide the RESTORE Act.) The measure would also provide $1.4 billion over the next two years for the Land and Water Conservation Fund for buying precious lands across America. The amendment passed with an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 76 to 22 (see how senators voted). The House passed a similar measure last month, and the two versions are expected to be reconciled in the transportation bill, which President Obama is expected to sign.
“This is a moment for hope and healing,” says David Yarnold, Audubon President and CEO. “And it’s only fair that most of the money will come from BP’s penalties. In this country, if you break it, you buy it, and BP owes this to the Gulf Coast. And the new dollars for buying precious lands will help us live up to our responsibility to take care of America for generations to come.”
As for the 1,661-mile Keystone XL pipeline: the vote on the measure by Sen. John Hoeven (R-N. Dak.) to approve its construction was far closer: 56 yea; 42 nay. (Each of the amendments requires 60 votes to pass; see how senators voted.) “Seeking to head off an election-year showdown over energy policy, [President] Obama has been calling wavering Senate Democrats, including members from Midwestern states where the pipeline will create construction jobs, to lobby against the Hoeven amendment, according to a Democratic aide,” Bloomberg reported.
The Keystone XL project is far from dead, however. As Reuters reports, “Obama has supported construction of the southern leg of the pipeline, and his administration will assess a new route around an environmentally sensitive area of Nebraska once it has been identified, White House spokesman Clark Stevens said.” In January the U.S. State Department rejected a proposal for the pipeline, calling for additional environmental review.
Another amendment by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that would have, among other things, blocked exports of oil transported through the pipeline was also defeated 34-64. (See how senators voted.)
TransCanada, meanwhile, is within weeks planning to submit a new permit application for the pipeline—one that won’t cut through Nebraska’s Sand Hills. Though it’s received less attention, there is growing opposition to the pipeline in the south. For more on that front, check out Texans Against Tar Sands.
Read more about the pipeline and the fight to keep it out of the Sandhills—home to some of our most fragile wildlife habitats and the earth’s largest underground reservoir, and a vital stopover point for majestic sandhill cranes and whooping cranes—in "Tarred and Feathered", by Audubon’s Incite columnist, Ted Williams.