Senate to vote on Keystone XL, drilling amendments to highway bill

Two measures pertaining to a federal permit for the Keystone XL pipeline are among those that will get votes Thursday as amendments to sweeping transportation legislation, under an agreement reached between Senate leaders late Wednesday night, said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

One amendment from Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., would reverse the Obama administration’s denial of a permit on Jan. 18 and approve the border-crossing pipeline using Congress’ powers under the commerce clause of the Constitution. But another amendment unveiled Wednesday by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that seeks to speed up a new Keystone XL application’s review without circumventing any required environmental studies, will get a vote alongside the Hoeven amendment.

Wyden’s amendment would require a final decision on a new pipeline application filed with the State Department within 90 days after all additional necessary studies are finished. It also would require Keystone XL’s oil and refined products to stay in the U.S. and encourage parts and workers for building the pipeline to come from America.

Neither of the amendments, just two of several energy-related amendments up for consideration, is likely to get the 60 votes needed to be added to the Senate transportation bill, a $109 billion measure that reauthorizes highway and mass-transit programs through fiscal 2013. Still, the agreement on amendments sets the stage for a final vote on the Senate’s bipartisan surface-transportation bill, which had been stuck in the chamber as party leaders tried to sort out which amendments should get votes. The clock is ticking to March 31, when surface-transportation programs are set to expire.

Other energy amendments that will get votes, according to details on the Democratic Senate website:

  • Expansion of offshore drilling into certain Atlantic and Pacific ocean waters. The provision appears to be similar to one aspect of a House bill passed last month that would expand oil-and-gas production to new waters and federal lands. (Sen. David Vitter, R-La.)
  • Delay of Environmental Protection Agency toxic-emission rules for industrial and commercial boilers. The oil industry says the rule would impose additional costs on America’s refining industry during a time of already-high gasoline prices. (Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine)
  • Extension of clean energy tax credits. (Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.)
  • Repeal of tax subsidies specifically for energy. (Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.)
  • Subsidies for natural-gas vehicle deployment. President Obama touted natural-gas vehicles in a speech on Wednesday in North Carolina. (Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Richard Burr, R-N.C.)
  • RESTORE Act to direct 80 percent of Clean Water Act penalties from the BP oil spill to the Gulf Coast for restoration efforts. (Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.; Mary Landrieu, D-La.; and Richard Shelby, R-Ala.)

The Republican-controlled House last month passed a GOP-sponsored bill, part of the chamber’s own five-year surface-transportation package, that contains the drilling provisions and would approve Keystone XL. But Obama has threatened to veto the bill and it’s all but dead in the Senate, whose Democrats had raised concerns about putting controversial, unrelated items such as Keystone XL language into a solidly bipartisan bill.

Republicans in both chambers have sought to circumvent the Obama administration’s denial of a permit for the pipeline that would carry oil-sands crude from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries. GOP lawmakers and industry groups claim the pipeline would bring 700,000 barrels of crude a day from a friendly neighbor and create up to 20,000 jobs.

The administration has said its decision stemmed from Republican political maneuvering that put in place an arbitrary decision deadline, forcing a hasty decision before it could finish studies of a new route — yet to be identified — around environmentally sensitive areas in Nebraska. The White House has noted TransCanada plans to reapply soon for a cross-border permit and to start the southern leg from Cushing, Okla., to the Gulf Coast.

Wyden’s amendment would also require the administration to use any past studies to the extent the law allows to speed up consideration of a new application. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said it’s possible some of information from her department’s review of the previous application could be used.

Jennifer Hoelzer, a spokesman for Wyden, said his amendment wouldn’t waive the need for the additional State Department study of alternative routes before a decision is rendered on the cross-border permit.

Critics of the Hoeven amendment say it would approve the pipeline before the route in Nebraska is known.

“Congress is not a permitting body and should not pass laws to circumvent a process designed to protect the public’s safety, health, and economic well being,” Anthony Swift with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said on his blog.

Environmental groups and many Democrats have criticized or outright opposed the pipeline. They have raised environmental concerns, argue it wouldn’t create anywhere near as many jobs that supporters promise and contend it wouldn’t alter the future growth of U.S. imports of Canadian crude.

The pipeline, by redirecting Canadian crude from the Plains and Midwestern states to the Gulf Coast, could raise gasoline prices in the former areas all while providing Gulf refiners with oil they could export, some opponents contend.

Republicans and industry groups have frowned upon the idea of restricting the free market from deciding where the pipeline’s oil would go and have said most of Keystone XL’s oil will stay in the U.S. anyway. Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., who co-sponsored the Keystone XL measure in the House transportation package, has said the export ban would serve as “killer language.”

“Democratic leadership has offered a Keystone XL bill that is actually worse than the status quo, adding delay upon delay,” Neil Brown, an adviser to Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., a co-sponsor of the Hoeven amendment, said in an email. “We offered negotiation, they offered blatant political posturing.”

Hoelzer insisted the Wyden amendment wouldn’t provide further delays. She said the amendment “simply requires that efforts to approve the Keystone XL pipeline follow — not waive — existing safety, environmental and other rules.”

Sen. Rod Wyden’s Keystone XL Amendment

This story was last updated at 10:31 p.m.