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The Keystone oil pipeline is pictured under construction in North Dakota.Reuters

U.S. senators solidly backed the controversial Keystone XL pipeline on Friday, voting 62 to 37 in favour in a largely symbolic vote of support that anti-Keystone activists dismissed as a meaningless stunt.

It's just "symbolic chest-thumping that will tell us a lot about who has been bought off by dirty energy money," said Jamie Henn, a spokesman for, one of the groups at the forefront of a coalition that is trying to turn the pipeline decision into a test of President Barack Obama's credibility on taking action to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases that are driving man-made climate change.

Still, the sharply divided Senate underscores that Keystone has become a high-profile and contentious political issue in the United States, not a relatively routine decision on the merits of a transborder pipeline to funnel 800,000 barrels of landlocked Alberta oil sands crude a day to U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast.

Republican senator John Hoeven of North Dakota managed to get significant support from other Republicans and Democrats in the 100-seat Senate.

Introduced as a budget amendment, the move was a harbinger of a more ambitious effort by Mr. Hoeven and Democratic senator Max Baucus of Montana to pass legislation that would strip Mr. Obama of the Keystone decision, giving it instead to Congress.

"This put the Senate on record in support of Keystone," Mr. Hoeven said.

But California Democrat Barbara Boxer said it was wrong to paint "everything as hunky dory with Keystone." She added that many questions remain unanswered, including how much of the oil would be exported, and how much of the steel for the pipe would be U.S.-made and whether U.S. national security interests would be undermined by opting for carbon-heavy oil imports.

"There's real climate destruction" associated with oil sands crude, she said. "It's very dangerous."

Ms. Boxer's own amendment, which amounted to a call to examine the ramifications of Keystone further, was defeated 66 to 33.

Mr. Obama is expected to decide whether to approve the pipeline this summer, although any decision could be tied up in litigation.

Backers of the $5-billion project say it would create thousands of jobs and create a reliable and secure source of oil. Canadian premiers and federal ministers have visited the United States in a major lobbying effort, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called approving the pipeline a "no brainer."

Meanwhile, Keystone is becoming a political issue in states far from its proposed route. In Massachusetts, one of the Democrats seeking the Senate seat John Kerry vacated to become Secretary of State has been targeted by Tom Steyer, a California billionaire and environmental activist because he supports Keystone.

"Billionaires won't shove me around," Congressman Stephen Lynch said in an op-ed published on Friday in the Boston Globe. He refused to meet Mr. Steyer's deadline of noon on Friday to withdraw his backing for the pipeline. "I hope that my opponent will use today's 'high noon' deadline to repudiate any and all out-of-state billionaires who attempt to influence this election," said Mr. Lynch, who is contesting the Democrat primary for the Senate seat.

Unbowed, and, according to spokesman Chris Lehane, willing to spend tens of millions on anti-Keystone campaigning, Mr. Steyer swung quickly into action in Massachusetts with an "education" campaign tarring Mr. Lynch for espousing Republican positions, not just on the pipeline.

Meanwhile, actor Robert Redford, another Keystone opponent, weighed in again on Friday. He said Alberta's oil sands crude was "bad for America, and really bad for change, producing three times more global warming pollution than conventional crude production, and using vast amounts of energy and water, causing significant pollution to both air and water."