Senators call for speedy Keystone XL decision

A bipartisan group of 20 senators on Tuesday implored their former colleague John Kerry to ensure the State Department approves the proposed Keystone XL pipeline by April.

In a letter to Kerry, the newly installed secretary of state, the senators insisted that the Obama administration should keep to its earlier announced timetable for deciding whether the $7 billion project is in the “national interest.”

The move comes as pipeline advocates fret that the final decision could stretch long beyond the end of the first quarter, when the State Department previously predicted it would be done reviewing the project. TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline would transport diluted bitumen from Alberta, Canada’s oil sands to refineries along the Gulf Coast.

“As you begin your tenure as Secretary of State, we urge you to make the timely approval of the Keystone XL pipeline one of your top priorities,” the senators wrote. “We believe that you and the president should remain committed to reaching a decision within the first quarter of this year.”

Read more: Keystone for climate: Could Obama craft a horse trade?

The letter was spearheaded by Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Max Baucus, D-Mont., whose states are now hotbeds of tight oil drilling that could benefit by using the pipeline to transport crude south, well beyond a bottleneck in Cushing, Okla.

Other senators joining the letter Tuesday included John Cornyn, R-Texas, Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Mary Landrieu, D-La., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Mark Pryor, D-Ark.

The Obama administration rejected a permit for the northern leg of the project last year, saying more environmental study was needed of a planned project rerouting in Nebraska.

In the meantime, TransCanada filed a new application for a permit for Keystone XL’s northern leg, while beginning construction on the southern portion of the pipeline, which does not require State Department approval.

The project is shaping up to be the biggest environmental test of President Barack Obama’s second term, especially following his commitment to use his executive branch powers to tackle climate change if Congress stalls on the issue.

Read more: Murdoch reveals Keystone XL opposition via Twitter (Feb. 18)

Environmentalists say the pipeline would expand the marketplace for oil sands crude generally harvested through mining or more energy-intensive methods that rely on steam.

Pipeline advocates reject opponents’ assertions that diluted bitumen from Canada is significantly dirtier than the crudes from Venezuela and other nations that it would likely displace in Gulf Coast refineries. Supporters of the project also say the pipeline would give the U.S. greater access to crude from a North American ally while fostering jobs in 49 states.

The State Department has been conducting an environmental analysis of the new planned route through Nebraska, which approved the new path on Jan. 22.

But Hoeven, Baucus and the other letter-writers today said there hasn’t been any clear signal recently about the path forward.

“The (State) Department has yet to inform the public and stakeholders of a definitive process for the final decision,” the group said. “Further delay will continue to hurt job creation and may damage our relationship with Canada. We cannot afford more delay.”

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Read ongoing FuelFix coverage of the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline:

Southern segment of Keystone XL is halfway finished (Feb. 24)
Senate Democrat touts support for Keystone XL (Feb. 20)
Keystone XL won’t affect climate, TransCanada says (Feb. 19)
Texans join activists at Keystone XL rally in D.C. (Feb. 17)
Oil industry steps up campaign for Keystone XL (Feb. 13)
Pipeline protesters arrested at White House (Feb. 13)
Man walking route of Keystone XL (Feb. 6)
Obama faces angry liberals over pipeline (Feb. 1)
Keystone XL work veers onto wrong land (Jan. 28)
Study: Keystone’s tar sands waste more damaging than coal (Jan. 18)