House passes plan to speed Keystone pipeline permit

The House easily passed legislation today that would force the Obama administration to decide by Nov. 1 whether to approve a proposed pipeline to deliver Canadian oil sands crude to refineries in Port Arthur, Texas and southwest Louisiana.

Although the measure isn’t expected to pass the Senate, supporters hope the bipartisan 279-147 vote favoring the project will send a strong signal to the Obama administration, which is on track to finish vetting TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline by year’s end. Ultimately 46 Democrats joined House Republicans in supporting the measure.

Oil industry advocates and their allies in Congress complain that a final verdict is long overdue. TransCanada first asked for the government’s approval to build the border-crossing pipeline nearly three years ago, under the Bush administration. That kicked off a series of environmental reviews required under federal laws.

Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., said the House-passed bill was necessary to “cut through the endless delays and create a hard deadline.”

Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., the sponsor of the legislation, called the Keystone XL “the most studied national pipeline” in U.S. history.

But critics — many of them Democrats — argued that the bill would block federal agencies and the public from fully weighing in on an environmental impact statement the State Department is set to issue in mid-August.

That step would normally be followed by a 90-day public comment period before a final decision on whether the project is in the national interest. Under an executive order issued in 2004, federal agencies involved in vetting the project, including the Environmental Protection Agency, also would have 15 days to appeal the State Department’s conclusions to President Barack Obama.

Daniel Clune, a deputy assistant secretary of state, stressed last week that the department’s national interest determination would be made after reviewing the full scope of environmental and safety issues related to the pipeline project — as well as broader energy security and national economic considerations. That includes a close look at oil supply disruptions in Libya and other parts of the Mideast.

“Energy security is going to be one of the factors that (Secretary Hillary Clinton) or her designee considers in making this decision, and I think it’ll be an important part of the equation,” Clune said. “It will include all the developments in the world related to energy and energy security, including what’s going on in Libya. But there are many other factors that go into the equation as well, including the environmental safety issues and economic considerations and foreign policy concerns.”

On the House floor today, pipeline skeptics argued that the government’s evaluation shouldn’t be short-circuited. “Once it’s built, we will live with the pipeline and its impacts for 50 years or more,” noted Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

Even if the bill were signed into law, it would only move up a final decision by two months.

Ahead of the vote, the White House said the legislation was “unnecessary because the Department of State has been working diligently to complete the permit decision process for the Keystone XL pipeline and has publicly committed to reaching a decision before Dec. 31.”

The proposed Keystone XL would expand TransCanada existing pipeline network, which now ends in Cushing, Okla., by adding a new, roughly 1,700-mile line from Alberta to the Gulf Coast.

The $13 billion project would allow up to 1.29 million barrels of oil sands crude to flow into refineries in the Midwest and the Gulf Coast — a 700 thousand barrel-per-day increase over existing capacity.

Environmentalists worry the pipeline would expand the marketplace for a heavy crude with greenhouse gas emissions from production to combustion that can be 40 percent more than those of conventional oil.

Although oil companies are adopting less invasive techniques from extracting the oil from tar sands, it has traditionally been removed through open pit mining that conservationists say has ravaged Alberta’s boreal forest.

Bill supporters combated the environmental arguments today by touting the potential economic benefits from the pipeline project — including a projected 10,000 to 20,000 construction jobs.

Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, said he is “constantly hearing from our building trades in Houston” about how important the project is.

And Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, described the House measure as “a bonafide jobs bill (that) will have a positive economic impact on our entire country.” He noted that 170 companies in Texas are expected to serve as suppliers for the pipeline.

Pipeline supporters and foes used today’s House debate to deliver dueling dire warnings about the future of the oil sands crude the pipeline would carry.

Pipeline supporters insisted that if the U.S. rejects the project, the Canadian crude would still be harvested — just delivered to energy-hungry Asian markets instead of the United States.

“If we don’t build this pipeline, Canada will find another buyer,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. China is eager to snap up the oil, Upton added.

“If America turns its back on Canadian oil, China will eagerly buy this precious resource, forcing our nation to turn to countries on the other side of the world for the energy needed to keep our economy running,” warned Charles Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association.

Critics insisted that after the synthetic crude is refined on the Gulf Coast, much of the resulting petroleum will be shipped overseas.

Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., called the pipeline’s promise of more domestic petroleum products on the U.S. markets “a charade.”

The pipeline will facilitate “oil for export — not for domestic consumption,” Connolly said. The bill isn’t about U.S. energy security, he added, “but oil profits and exports.”

The State Department is set to hold another round of public meetings on the project in September in areas that lie in the pipeline’s projected path. At least two are expected in Texas, including one in Austin and another in Port Arthur.