Congress wasted no time this year getting back into the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, despite last voting on approving the project in November. Now with firm control of the House and Senate, Republicans are eager to contrast their energy policy with that of President Barack Obama, who has questioned the need for and the importance of the pipeline.

But in the Senate, it’s nearly impossible to debate one energy issue without folding others into the mix, and Keystone is no longer just about infrastructure and oil production. Climate change, landowners’ rights and U.S. oil dependence are just a few of the issues on senators’ minds as they continue consideration of the bill.

What is the Keystone pipeline and why is Congress spending so much time on it?

Much has been made of the 1,700-mile project extending from Alberta, Canada’s oil sands patch to Texas. But the heated political debate is now focused on the proposed 875-mile portion that would enter the United States in Morgan, Mont., and connect to an existing network in Steele City, Neb., before continuing to Gulf Coast refiners.

The Keystone system would have the capacity to transport up to 830,000 barrels of oil per day, mostly from the Canadian oil sands but with room reserved for lighter oil from the Bakken Shale play spanning North Dakota and Montana southward.

To Republicans, and some moderate Democrats, building Keystone is a critical step to making North America a dominant player in the global oil market by giving Canadian oil easy access to major American refiners and ports. But many Democrats believe constructing such a long pipeline system will lock the U.S. into decades of carbon-heavy oil at a time when the world’s nations are trying to curb greenhouse gas emissions to avert the worst consequences of climate change. On top of that, the Senate hasn’t passed an energy bill in several years, leading to pent-up demand for debate on a host of energy issues.

Is the fight over Keystone affecting other pipeline construction?

Former Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration head — and Keystone supporter — Brigham McCown says oil producers have been reluctant to commit to putting a certain amount of oil through other potential pipelines due to the controversy surrounding Keystone. Pipeline builders typically seek agreements with extraction companies for guaranteed minimum amounts of oil they plan to send through their systems so builders have locked-in demand for the infrastructure.


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