The House of Representatives passed legislation Wednesday that would speed construction of the Keystone XL pipeline — a largely symbolic measure with probably no chance of clearing the Democratic Senate and overcoming a presidential veto.
The bill passed 241-175 on Wednesday is the latest attempt by the Republican-controlled House to pressure the Obama administration to approve the pipeline that would transport oil sands crude from Canada to the Gulf Coast. Nineteen Democrats voted in favor. One Republican – Rep. Justin Amash, of Michigan, – voted present.
TransCanada Corp. first sought approval to build the border-crossing pipeline in 2005, and it likely will be many months or longer before the Obama administration issues a final verdict on the project. Republicans accused the White House of foot-dragging and say the pipeline would ensure the United States uses more oil from a North American ally instead of hostile foreign regimes.
“This bill cuts through red tape,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif. “What this boils down to is breaking through bureaucratic hurdles and making this project a priority.”
The legislation would authorize the Keystone XL pipeline by deeming existing environmental reviews of the project sufficient and effectively authorizing other necessary permits. It also would expedite judicial review of the pipeline and require that legal challenges be filed within 60 days.
The House rejected an amendment by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Houston, which would expand the time for filing legal claims to one year. On Wednesday, Jackson-Lee also argued that the bill’s requirement for legal claims to be filed in a Washington, D.C.-based federal court imposed a high burden for critics in the pipeline’s path.
Congressional Democrats derided the legislation as political messaging that attempts to circumvent the formal process for evaluating border-crossing energy infrastructure first established by former President George W. Bush in 2004. The House has voted on similar measures to advance Keystone XL seven times before in the past two-and-a-half years, noted Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.V., who supports the pipeline, complained that the Republican bill eliminates permit requirements to the benefit of a foreign company.
“I want to see this pipeline built,” he said, but “we don’t even do that for our domestic companies.”
Houston Democrat Gene Green, who voted for the legislation, said he shared the frustration of Republican lawmakers that environmental reviews have delayed a final decision on the project. But he noted the bill has no chance in the Senate.
Green said that if Obama rejects Keystone XL, Houston refineries in the East Harris County district he represents will be forced to “continue to purchase oil from unstable foreign countries with few environmental regulations.”
Energy analysts expect the heavy oil transported by Keystone XL would displace supplies from Venezuela and declining imports from Mexico.
Congressional Democrats used a series of rejected amendments to press their environmental concerns, including climate change and oil spills. A failed proposal by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., aimed to put the House on record saying Keystone XL would boost heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 4.3 million passenger vehicles.
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., pushed for a study on the health effects of air pollution in communities surrounding refineries that would process crude transported by the Keystone XL pipeline. Another rejected amendment would have required a government analysis of projected costs and environmental damage from a Keystone XL spill.
Recent spills of diluted bitumen — the oil sands material that Keystone XL would carry — have proven more difficult to clean up than anticipated.
“We now have ample evidence from the oil spills in Kalamazoo, Mich., and Mayflower, Ark., that concerns about pipeline safety are well justified,” said Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y. — referring to the 2010 rupture of an Enbridge pipeline in Michigan and this year’s spill from an Exxon Mobil pipeline in Arkansas.
TransCanada has acknowledged that diluted bitumen can be driven to the bottom of turbulent bodies of water, sticking to rocks and making clean-up more challenging. But the company insists the products that Keystone XL would carry are no more corrosive than other oil. It repeatedly has cited its pledge to follow 57 conditions for design, maintenance and testing, in addition to all other federal safety regulations.
Because Keystone XL would cross an international border, the State Department must determine whether it is in the national interest. If any one of eight separate federal agencies disagrees with State’s decision, it would launch a process that would put the final verdict in President Barack Obama’s hands.
Last month, TransCanada predicted that the project will not be completed until the second half of 2015. In the meantime, the company is already building the southern leg of the pipeline from Cushing, Okla. to the Gulf Coast.
The backdrop for the debate over Keystone XL is a bigger fight over Canadian oil sands development. Environmentalists say the proposed pipeline would spur use of more energy-intensive extraction methods than those used for conventional crude, resulting in increased greenhouse gas emissions.
Pipeline backers insist that blocking Keystone XL will do little to inhibit oil sands development. Trains and other pipelines will carry the product to the Gulf Coast even without Keystone XL, these supporters say, even as other projects could deliver bitumen to Canada’s west coast for export to Asian markets.