The White House says U.S. President Barack Obama would veto any legislation that tries to fast-track the Keystone XL project even as Republican lawmakers tabled a bill that would do just that in Washington today.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said he does not expect Obama would sign any legislation that reaches his desk that would unilaterally approve the project, a 1,900-kilometre pipeline that would bring 800,000 barrels of Canadian crude oil to U.S. refineries every day.

The project has been in the works for six years since it was originally pitched in 2008 by Calgary-based TransCanada Pipelines Ltd., which reiterated its commitment to the project on Tuesday, even amid a huge drop in the price of oil that potentially changes the economics somewhat.

Impact of cheap oil

"Keystone XL is a project that was needed when oil prices were less than $40 in 2008 when we first made our application, more than $100 last year, or $50 today," CEO Russ Girling said in a statement.

Girling's statement said his company has been diligent in its effort to comply with "every twist and turn in this unparalleled process."

"To be clear, this is just a pipeline," Girling said. "Not the first. Not the last – just a safe and reliable pipeline that delivers energy Americans need. It's time to make a decision."

The White House made the veto declaration on the same day that a newly minted Republican-controlled Congress was ramping up its attempts to move the project forward by tabling a bill in the U.S. Senate to OK the project. Republicans picked up nine seats in the midterm elections, so supporters say they had 63 votes in favour of the bill, enough to overcome a filibuster but not a presidential veto — which would require 67.

As mandated by the Constitution, the U.S. Senate resumed sitting at noon on Tuesday. One of the first items on the agenda is a bill, sponsored by Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, 53 other Republicans and six Democrats, that would effectively take the issue out of the State Department's jurisdiction.

The Senate bill is identical to one that fell a single vote shy of passage in November, when Democrats controlled the Senate and Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, a Democrat, pushed for a vote to save her Senate seat. She ended up losing her seat to a Republican.

The lower House of Representatives is expected to vote on the bill and pass it on Friday, while the Senate bill seems destined to wind its way through a Byzantine process of riders, which means it would land on the president's desk some time after that.


TransCanada president and CEO Russ Girling said in a statement Tuesday that Keystone XL is 'just a pipeline. Not the first. Not the last.' (Todd Korol/Reuters)

Indeed, some lawmakers who oppose the project in broad strokes could possibly be brought around to supporting it with some amendments. 

In a letter to Democrats from their leadership obtained by the AP, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said the Keystone bill was "the first opportunity to demonstrate that we will be united, energetic, and effective in offering amendments that create a clear contrast with the Republican majority."

Among the ideas suggested in the letter were measures to prohibit exporting the oil abroad, to ensure American iron, steel and other goods were used in the pipeline's construction and to match every job created by the pipeline with an investment in clean energy.

"There's a lot we can get done together if the president puts his famous pen to use signing bills rather than vetoing legislation his liberal allies don't like," Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said late last year.

A presidential veto is no trifling matter. In his six years in office, Obama has only vetoed two other bills. His predecessor George W. Bush used a veto 12 times, while Bill Clinton did so 37 times during his eight-year presidency.

A statement from the office of Canada’s Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford said his government believes the project has support from the public and should be approved. 

The project will create jobs on both sides of the border, the statement said, and "the [U.S.] State Department itself has indicated it can be developed in an environmentally sustainable manner."

"Right now this is not a debate between Canada and the U.S., it's a debate between the president and the American people, who are overwhelmingly supportive of the project, and we're not going to comment on the American political process," the statement from Rickford’s office said.

With files from The Associated Press