WASHINGTON — Obama administration officials on Tuesday blasted legislation that aims to streamline the permitting of pipelines and power lines that cross U.S. borders, saying the bill would short-circuit critical environmental reviews and hamper the public’s ability to weigh in.
The measure by Reps. Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Gene Green, D-Houston, would require federal agencies to approve proposed border-crossing energy projects within 120 days unless they are deemed to be against the national security interest of the United States.
During a congressional hearing on the bill, Green insisted that the goal was to speed up just one step in the approval process for cross-border pipelines and power lines: the point at which they must receive presidential permits. Green insisted that the projects would still have to clear the standard suite of environmental reviews, public comment periods and analysis customary for interstate energy infrastructure that doesn’t cross international boundaries.
But administration officials had a different interpretation. The measure, as worded now, could curtail environmental assessments even beyond the presidential permit stage, said Jeff Wright, director of energy projects at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
In particular, the bill’s “proposed 120-day approval process would negate the ability of the commission to consider stakeholder concerns and severely curtail the commission’s ability to conduct a thorough analysis of a project involving border facilities, resulting in a decision whose sustainability is questionable,” Wright told the House Energy and Power Subcommittee.
Wright said the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission doesn’t have experience making “national security” determinations on projects — a threshold that would be easier to clear than the “public interest” requirement in law today.
Wright was testifying on his own behalf; as an independent regulatory body, the commission is separate from the Obama administration. The commission’s actions are decided by its five members.
But officials from the departments of Energy and Commerce raised similar concerns in written statements filed with the panel.
Michael Knotek, the deputy undersecretary for science and energy, said the bill could block the Energy Department from making “reasoned and responsible decisions,” while hindering “consideration of the environmental effects of such projects.”
“The bill would prevent the thorough consideration of complex issues that could have serious safety, environmental, and other ramifications,” Knotek said.
Kevin Wolf, the assistant secretary for export administration at the Commerce Department, said the 120-day deadline would “unnecessarily limit the ability for the executive branch to make reasoned and responsible decisions.”
The Upton-Green bill would effectively replace the current structure for vetting border-crossing energy infrastructure projects — an ad hoc presidential permit process created by a smattering of executive orders over decades. Democrats and Republicans broadly agreed that it was time for Congress to put its stamp on the process, as surging North American oil and gas development boosts the need for new and modified pipelines across the continent.
Upton argued that many “upcoming cross-border projects, both large and small” face long delays and other “projects that have been in existence for decades are being left in regulatory limbo over minor issues such as change in ownership.” The result, he said, is that industry and investors are dissuaded from entering the U.S. market.
Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., said he agreed “there is an argument that Congress should act to set the rules of the road for these projects, rather than have the process determined mainly by a series of executive orders.
But, he said, it is important for lawmakers to understand all of the existing problems first and preserve important safeguards in the process. “We should make sure that cross-border projects are in the public interest (and) receive thorough environmental reviews,” McNerney said. “We shouldn’t have a rushed process that isn’t going to provide meaningful review.”
Effect on Keystone XL
The bill would put FERC in charge of vetting gas pipelines that cross into Canada and Mexico, while the Commerce Department would tackle border-crossing oil pipelines and the Energy Department would be in charge of electric transmission lines that straddle the border.
The legislation also would make clear that changes to existing border-crossing energy infrastructure — such as a plan to reverse the flow of oil and gas in pipelines — do not need new or revised presidential permits. Under the current approach, companies have sought new and revised presidential permits for changing the flow of pipelines and ownership changes.
Related story: Keystone battle inspires effort to tame process
Bill backers said the legislation would not change the process for currently pending border-crossing pipelines and power lines. The legislation includes an effective date of July 1, 2015 — a bid by Upton and Green to quell criticism that TransCanada Corp. could reapply for its proposed Keystone XL pipeline under the new process, if the measure became law.
That project has faced years of scrutiny at the presidential permit stage, with the State Department leading an assessment of whether Keystone XL is in the national interest. TransCanada’s decision to reroute the proposed pipeline in Nebraska — after concerns raised by state leaders and landowners — triggered additional environmental assessments that have slowed vetting of the project.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said he didn’t think the bill’s provisions would definitely keep the “zombie” of Keystone XL from returning even if the Obama administration rejects it.
“Even if the administration rejects KXL because it is not in the public interest, KXL can rise from the grave and reapply,” Waxman said. “It would then be rubber stamped under the new process.”
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