Washington (AFP) - The US Congress on Monday edged closer to approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline, with several Senate Democrats bucking President Barack Obama to vote for the contentious project's construction.
The legislation easily passed the House last week. It cleared its first major hurdle in the Republican-controlled Senate, advancing on a 63-32 vote, including 11 Democratic supporters.
But the count fell short of the 67-vote threshold that the bill will need to reach to override a veto should Obama follow through on his threat to veto the measure.
Monday's vote officially kicked off debate on the long-delayed project, which if constructed by builder TransCanada would transport crude from Alberta's oil sands south to refineries on the US Gulf Coast.
Keystone supporters received a boost Friday when Nebraska's Supreme Court dismissed a suit challenging a proposed route of the pipeline, which had been one of the primary rationales for the Obama administration delaying its decision on the pipeline.
Obama has also opposed Keystone due to environmental concerns, although his State Department concluded in its environmental impact statement that the effect would be minimal.
One of the bill's sponsors, Senate Republican John Hoeven, reminded the chamber Monday that building Keystone would mean "working with our closest friend and ally in the world."
US energy security would improve too, he added. "When it comes to geopolitical events that effect the price of energy, we're in a strong situation," he said.
Republicans, who see Keystone as a top economic priority, argue that the project would create 42,000 construction jobs.
But Democratic opponents like Senator Barbara Boxer insist those are merely temporary jobs, and that just 35 permanent jobs would be created for the 1,179-mile (1,900-kilometer) pipeline, according to the State Department.
"This is really a big hug and a big kiss to big oil, and Canadian interests," Boxer said after the vote.
Keystone would funnel crude from Alberta's oil sands, which environmentalists and other critics deride as dirty "tar sands" that take more energy and water to process.
Republicans say moving oil by pipeline releases far fewer emissions than transporting it by rail or road.