Republicans push bill to force Keystone XL approval

Republican lawmakers on Tuesday worked on two fronts to advance legislation that would force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

An Energy and Commerce subcommittee voted 17-9 to approve the bill, queuing it up for the full panel’s approval Wednesday morning and a debate on the House floor later this month.

Meanwhile, the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the legislation with witnesses representing the National Association of Manufacturers, the refining industry and an environmental group.

The bill would guarantee approval of the Keystone XL pipeline by deeming previous environmental reviews of the project sufficient — even without a final determination from President Barack Obama — and effectively authorizing other necessary permits. The legislation also would expedite judicial review of the pipeline, in anticipation of legal challenges.

Similar measures have passed the House before, propelled by Republicans who say the legislation is necessary to bring years of government reviews to a close. TransCanada first proposed building Keystone XL in 2005.

And last month, 62 senators supported Keystone XL in a vote on an amendment to a non-binding budget resolution.

But even some supporters of the new House bill admit it’s dead on arrival in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Climate change: Environmentalists say feds are overlooking the climate costs of Keystone XL

Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, voted for the legislation, but he said the bill was nothing more than a Republican messaging bill that had no chance of clearing the Senate and was distracting lawmakers from substantive policy issues.

“It’s time the administration stop stalling on a decision,” Green said.

Keystone XL would transport diluted bitumen and synthetic crude oil from Canada — along with some domestic crude harvested in North Dakota and Montana — to Gulf Coast refineries. The State Department is vetting the 875-mile northern leg of the project under a 2004 executive order that tasks it with determining whether border-crossing petroleum pipelines are in the “national interest.” Meanwhile, TransCanada is already building the southern portion of the pipeline, which is not subject to State Department review.

Conservationists who oppose Keystone XL say there would be the potential for spills all along the pipeline route and insist that the diluted bitumen it would carry is more corrosive and harder to clean up than alternatives. TransCanada Corp. has countered that dilbit is no more corrosive than conventional crude oil.

And environmentalists say Keystone XL would exacerbate climate change by encouraging companies to harvest more bitumen from Canada’s oil sands using mining or other energy-intensive steam-based methods. The result, they say, is a type of heavy crude that has a bigger carbon footprint than alternatives.

But last month, the State Department released a fresh environmental assessment of the project that concluded Keystone XL was unlikely to dramatically boost demand for Canada’s oil sands or the amount of heavy crude oil processed in Gulf Coast refineries. The oil sands crude will make its way to U.S. refineries by other means — including trains, barges and other pipelines — even if Keystone XL is blocked, according to State’s analysis.

Democratic lawmakers cast the House bill as a tired bid to short-circuit federal environmental laws to favor just one company’s project. “Here we are for the umpteenth time debating a bill that would mandate approval of the Keystone pipeline,” observed Rep. Bobby Rush.

And Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., said the bill was a “rubber stamp.” Given Keystone XL’s likely long lifespan – 50 years or more – another year or two of analysis to ensure the pipeline’s safety is not too long to wait, Tonko said.

But Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., said the legislation isn’t cutting off reviews prematurely, since several assessments have been done of the project. “Nobody can seriously suggest we are somehow rushing this project,” he said.

At the House Natural Resources Committee hearing, the major question was what would happen to oil sands crude if Keystone XL is blocked.

Jeffrey Soth, the assistant legislative and political director of the International Union of Operating Engineers, said Chinese companies who have invested in Canadian oil sands projects, are eager to obtain the product.

“While there are many options for the distribution of this oil, . . . denial of a presidential permit for Keystone XL increases the likelihood that American markets will miss a major opportunity to secure long-term commitments for this North American resource — opportunities that could be lost forever to China,” Soth said.

Video: Keystone XL foes launch aggressive campaign against pipeline

But Stephen Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International, insisted growth in Canada’s oil sands development is hardly guaranteed. First Nations in Canada have raised objections to some pipelines that would send the oil sands crude to the country’s coasts for export.

And he stressed that the Keystone XL pipeline would facilitate exports of U.S. petroleum products, by sending oil sands crude to Gulf Coast refineries who could process it and sell it overseas.

“The Keystone XL pipeline is a pipeline through the United States — not to the United States,” Kretzmann said. “Tar sands producers are desperate to get their product to refineries that serve international markets so that they can expand their market beyond U.S. borders, increase the price they get for their product and maximize profits.

The action in Congress comes amid continued State Department scrutiny of the project, far outside Washington, D.C. The State Department is holding a meeting on Thursday in Grand Island, Neb., to hear from the public about the environmental impact statement issued last month.

Ahead of the hearing, local residents and landowners who oppose Keystone XL are lighting up the pipeline route and plan to highlight the risks of spills along its path.

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