WASHINGTON – Congressional supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline are exploring legislation that might circumvent the Obama administration’s denial of a permit for the project by letting Congress or an independent federal agency approve it.
United after the State Department denied the permit Wednesday, Republicans in both chambers vowed they would push proposals to force approval of the pipeline.
“All options are on the table,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters. “This fight is not going to go away.”
Stand-alone proposals would face tough odds in the Democratic-held Senate.
But Boehner pointed to certain “legislative vehicles that we’ll be moving.” He didn’t rule out tying the proposals to a bill further extending the payroll tax break and unemployment benefits.
Republicans have used that tactic before to boost TransCanada Corp.’s proposed tar-sands oil pipeline from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries.
In a deal last month to extend the tax break for two months, they included a Feb. 21 deadline for the State Department to determine whether Keystone XL serves the national interest – a test the pipeline must meet since it would cross an international border.
The administration said TransCanada could reapply. President Barack Obama said his administration rejected the pipeline permit not on the merits, but because the deadline didn’t give enough time to study alternative routes around a drinking-water aquifer in Nebraska, making the national-interest decision impossible.
New route by October?
“There’s not even an alternate route proposed yet,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Thursday.
TransCanada said it will take up the offer to reapply and is working with Nebraska officials to get a new route picked by October.
It’s also considering just building a pipeline from Cushing, Okla., to the Gulf Coast.
That link, designed to alleviate a bottleneck at a key pipeline hub in Cushing, was part of the proposal rejected Wednesday but wouldn’t need State Department review. TransCanada still would need to get other permits and assess interest from shippers, spokesman Terry Cunha said.
CEO Russ Girling said he hopes the State Department could use the “exhaustive record” from its previous application in expediting approval of its new cross-border application to meet the company’s startup goal of late 2014.
As TransCanada prepares its new application, opponents will continue their fight, educating the public on their concerns about the pipeline, said Jeremy Symons of the National Wildlife Federation, a conservation group.
Republicans characterize the decision against the permit as an election-related move to appease environmentalist Democrats, which they say will cost thousands of construction jobs. Pipeline opponents say the jobs claims are inflated, and that the pipeline would promote a particularly dirty form of oil and threaten water supplies.
Legislation by Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., would transfer Keystone XL authority to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an independent agency – and require it to approve the pipeline within 30 days. Terry argues that FERC understands pipelines better.
A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee will debate the bill at a hearing Wednesday.
Republicans on the committee invited Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to testify. They said late Thursday that Kerri-Ann Jones, an assistant secretary who was the department’s primary point person on the permit process, will testify to explain the decision.
On the Senate side, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., is pushing a proposal that would bypass the administration, letting Congress issue a permit.
Vermont Law School professor Patrick Parenteau said such a proposal could raise constitutional issues about which branch of government has power over border-crossing pipelines.
Support by a Democrat
A Democrat who supports the pipeline, Rep. Gene Green of Houston, said the administration should expedite TransCanada’s new application.
He said he would be hesitant, however, to support GOP proposals altering historical or constitutional processes because of difficulties with one pipeline.
“But I understand their frustration,” Green said Thursday. “This decision should have been a slam-dunk.”