Democrats raise new concerns about Keystone XL bill

Top Democrats on Friday renewed their attacks on a Republican bill that would fast-track the approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, raising concerns that two U.S. agencies would lose oversight over the pipeline if the legislation were to become law.

The bill from Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., would strip the State Department of its Keystone XL approval powers and require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve the pipeline in 30 days. If FERC weren’t to act, the bill would deem Keystone XL to be approved.

Democrats have noted that FERC testified last week that it has no experience or authority siting oil pipelines, and they say that Terry’s bill would approve the pipeline before Nebraska could propose a new route around a drinking-water aquifer in the state. But they raised new alarms Friday, when officials from the Bureau of Land Management and the Army Corps of Engineers told a House panel that the Terry bill would end the agencies’ regulatory and oversight authority concerning waters and federal lands the pipeline would pass through.

“Without knowing all the facts, without having a thorough review … the Republicans want to mandate that this pipeline get this very special treatment,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Henry Waxman, D-Calif., told reporters ahead of a subcommittee hearing on the bill.

Terry’s bill is one of a few Republicans have floated in their quest to approve the tar-sands oil pipeline from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries ever since TransCanada was denied a permit on Jan. 18. GOP leaders have mulled wrapping Keystone XL legislation into other must-pass bills, such as a long-term extension of the payroll tax break, which expires at the end of February.

President Obama said his administration denied the permit because a congressionally imposed Feb. 21 decision deadline didn’t allow enough time for the State Department to study a new route that Nebraska has yet to propose. TransCanada has said it plans to reapply with a new Nebraska route.

Terry said he feels FERC has expertise on pipelines and his bill would remove what he alleged is the White House’s political influence in the decision to deny the permit. But FERC has said that it doesn’t have authority or experience on siting oil pipelines and that the 30-day approval deadline “does not allow sufficient time to build an adequate record to arrive at a defensible decision.”

Mike Pool, deputy director of the BLM, and Margaret Gaffney-Smith, chief of the Army Corps regulatory office, told the subcommittee that they agreed FERC lacks the needed expertise for handling a permit for the pipeline and that the 30-day approval timeline in Terry’s bill’s wouldn’t give them enough time to provide guidance to FERC.

Pool said the bill would transfer to FERC his bureau’s power to oversee construction, operation and maintenance of the pipeline that would run through federal lands. Gaffney-Smith said her agency would lose its ability to conduct reviews and issue permits needed under U.S. water laws.

Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., told reporters Republicans were considering changes to the bill that would seek to address concerns raised by BLM and the Army Corps. The full committee announced plans to vote on the bill next week and House Republicans may fold it into their legislation for reauthorizing surface-transportation programs.

In the December law extending the payroll tax cut two months, Republicans not only included the Feb. 21 deadline but also specified the studies the department had already done were sufficient.

“Everything that can be said about Keystone has been said,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, former committee chairman. “But sometimes it needs to be repeated. This is a extremely important project for our nation’s future.”

But Assistant Secretary of State Kerri-Ann Jones said at the previous hearing that the department finished its environmental study before Nebraskans raised concerns about the pipeline’s route.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., former committee chairman, warned Republicans against advancing Terry’s bill, saying that rushing the pipeline’s approval would “generate monstrous ill will and create a situation where there’s more delay rather than less,” perhaps with lawsuits.

Separately Friday, House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Ed Markey, D-Mass., Waxman and three other Democrats introduced a bill to require Keystone XL oil to remain in the U.S. if the pipeline is built. Keystone XL supporters contend the pipeline would deliver oil from a friendly neighbor while creating thousands of jobs.

Congressional and environmentalist opponents of Keystone XL respond that the pipeline would reroute already-imported Canadian oil from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast, where refiners can export some of it without paying taxes and causing Midwestern gas prices to rise. Opponents also say the pipeline would create few permanent jobs.

Waxman also said the GOP had refused Democrats’ request to bring in two witnesses they contend would provide crucial information on Keystone XL, including one from TransCanada Corp., the pipeline’s proponent. He called on Republicans not to advance Terry’s bill until Congress can hear from them.

“We want to know more about this project from the people who are going to be involved directly in this project,” Waxman said.

He said Republicans refused to bring a witness from Koch Industries Inc., a company almost fully owned by the GOP donor Koch brothers. Waxman has alleged Koch Industries had a financial interest in Keystone XL’s approval. The company has called the allegations “demonstrably false.”

This story was last updated at 5:02 p.m.