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Some 15,000 pieces of pipe for TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline lie in a field in North Dakota on April 23, 2013.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

The U.S. House of Representatives has turned up the political heat on the Obama administration over the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, passing a bill Wednesday that would grant approval for the project.

In a 241-175 vote in which 19 Democrats join the Republican majority, the House approved the bill to take the decision out of the hands of President Barack Obama and allow the project to proceed.

The bill is unlikely to become law. The Democrats control the Senate and the party's leadership will be reluctant to force the hand of President Obama, who has vowed to veto the law if it lands on his desk.

However, the Senate gave bipartisan support on a symbolic motion this spring that endorsed TransCanada Corp.'s $5.3-billion pipeline, which would carry more than 800,000 barrels per day of oil sands bitumen to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The Calgary-based pipeline company said the congressional actions – along with support in public-opinion polls – show strong political support for the project, and urged the administration to grant it speedy approval.

"We appreciate the continued support from many members of Congress, who understand the importance of Keystone XL to the American economy," TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said in a statement.

"Keystone XL will be the safest oil pipeline built in the United States to date, and it will help make America less reliant on more expensive oil from countries that do not share its interests and values."

The Harper government has lobbied aggressively – including an advertising campaign in Washington – to win support for the pipeline, which will connect the oil sands directly to the world's largest refining centre.

The U.S. State Department – which must recommend to Mr. Obama whether to issue a permit – is studying the response to its draft environmental impact statement, and is expected to issue a final assessment by early summer.

Environmental groups in the United States have urged the President to reject the pipeline, which they say will contribute to climate change by facilitating expansion of oil-sands production. The extraction of the oil sands contributes more carbon dioxide per barrel than virtually any other source of crude.

Activist Bill McKibben, founder of, which organizes anti-pipeline protests, said fewer Democrats voted for the House bill than have supported the pipeline in the past.

"This vote should be a sign that it's finally occurring to official Washington that Keystone is the No. 1 priority for the environmental movement, and we are beginning to really see just who is willing to fight for the climate," Mr. McKibben said.

Leading Democratic strategist Neera Tanden said Mr. Obama faces enormous pressure from the environmental community, which regards his Keystone decision as a litmus test for his commitment to battling climate change.

Ms. Tanden is president of the Center for American Progress, a progressive thinktank in Washington that opposes the Keystone project.

After a speech in Ottawa Wednesday, she said Mr. Obama's commitment shouldn't be judged on one pipeline decision, "but on the progress we have made at the end of his time in office."