Keystone XL’s backers fell one U.S. Senate vote short Tuesday of the 60 needed to challenge U.S. President Barack Obama over approval of the controversial project, pushing back the showdown until early next year when Republicans control both houses of Congress.

After hours of passionate debate during which the pipeline was denounced as a harbinger of planetary doom and lauded as the solution to North America’s energy woes, the pro-Keystone XL faction ended up just shy of the votes required for the legislation to proceed.

The vote was 59 backing approval of the Keystone XL project and 41 against.

Mr. Obama had already signalled he would veto any congressional effort to wrest control of the decision on whether TransCanada Corp.’s $8-billion export pipeline from Alberta to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico coast should be built.

In Ottawa, the Conservative government, which has lobbied tirelessly on behalf of TransCanada, voiced dismay.

“We are disappointed that U.S. politics continue to delay a decision on Keystone XL,” said Chris McCluskey, spokesman for Canadian Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who once called the choice before Mr. Obama so evident that it was a “no brainer,” may have to wait until next year or perhaps after the 2016 U.S. presidential election to get a decision on Keystone XL.

TransCanada president and chief executive officer Russ Girling saw a silver lining in the vote, saying it “demonstrates a growing and high level of support for Keystone XL both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives.”

Canada’s own environmental record – especially Ottawa’s handling of the vast oil sands – was decried during the debate by U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who led opponents of the bill.

“When it comes to the tar sands, they don’t have a good record,” she said, adding that massive development of Alberta’s vast resources would “hurt our planet and we want to have a planet that is habitable for our children and generations to come.”

While Republicans uniformly voted for Keystone XL, Democrats were split.

“This is America’s hour to become energy independent,” said Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat whose state of Louisiana is home to huge refinery complexes. “We won’t have to kowtow to Russia” if Keystone XL is built, she said, adding a previously unheard argument to the pro-pipeline faction.

Senator John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican and sponsor of the pro-Keystone bill, said Mr. Obama’s “strategy is defeat through delay.”

Opponents hailed the outcome.

“The Senate did the right thing to reject the misguided bill, and now the President should do the right thing and reject the pipeline,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

League of Conservation Voters senior vice-president Tiernan Sittenfeld said: “We’re more confident than ever that this pipeline will never be built. The decision remains right where it belongs – with President Obama.”

As the most recent confrontation loomed, Mr. Obama was more dismissive than ever as to whether Keystone XL serves U.S. national interests even as he acknowledged it might be good for Canada.

“Understand what this project is,” he said. It allows Canadians “to pump their oil, send it through our land, down to the Gulf, where it will be sold everywhere else.” The President has repeatedly delayed deciding on Keystone XL, for which TransCanada first applied for a permit six years ago.

Tuesday’s debate was a last-ditch effort by Ms. Landrieu, an ardent Keystone XL supporter who is fighting for her political life in a runoff election next month, to show she had clout in Washington as the Senate’s energy committee chair. “I know in my heart” that there will be 60 votes, she said in an impassioned plea that almost sounded like begging.

In her heart, perhaps, but not on the Senate floor, where – by falling one short – the pro-Keystone XL faction will now need to wait until January, when the Republican majority in the new Congress will add three or four more backers of the project.

Meanwhile, polls show Ms. Landrieu is now 20 points behind Bill Cassidy, the Republican who sponsored pro-Keystone XL legislation that won easily in the House of Representatives last Friday.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who will become majority leader in the next Senate, vowed to revisit the Keystone XL issue. The “new majority will be taking this matter up and sending it to the President,” he said.

But even the addition of several more pro-Keystone senators won’t give the project’s backers the 67 votes needed to override a presidential veto.

Undeterred by Tuesday’s failed bill, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice said he was “reasonably optimistic” that a vote on the pipeline would clear a new Congress dominated by Republicans in January. Earlier in the day, the Premier called the U.S. Senate vote “critical for the future of Alberta.”

In December, prominent Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey will visit Alberta to discuss the pipeline and oil exports. The Premier will then travel to the U.S. capital in January to meet with American legislators.

“This is not the end of the process, but a step along the way and one might expect that once the new members of the U.S. Senate are sworn in this process will continue anew,” Mr. Prentice said.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall expressed his dismay with the vote. “It’s disappointing that the Keystone XL bill did not receive the 60 required votes, but it’s pretty clear it will pass when the new senators take their seats early in the new year,” said Mr. Wall, on a trade mission in India. “I hope at that time, the President will accept the direction of both houses and the will of the majority of Americans who support Keystone XL, and that he will sign this bill.”

Environmentalists have turned Keystone XL into a test of Mr. Obama’s vow to combat carbon emissions, which he says threaten future generations.

They are now girding for what they expect will be a wave of Republican-backed legislation seeking to roll back Mr. Obama’s other regulatory efforts on carbon emissions.

“It is likely that for the next two years we will be faced with one of the most anti-environmental congresses in U.S. history,” said Ben Schreiber, climate and energy program director with Friends of the Earth.

WASHINGTON — The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Nov. 18 2014, 3:04 PM EST
Last updated Wednesday, Nov. 19 2014, 5:06 AM EST