Climate change, trade policy enter debate over Keystone XL

Wednesday’s congressional debate on the Keystone XL pipeline will be a forum for a host of other contentious  topics, including climate change, oil spills and protectionist policy.

The debates will come as the House of Representatives takes up legislation to speed approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would carry diluted bitumen from Canadian oil sands developments to Gulf Coast refineries.

Although the bill sponsored by Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., probably will  pass the House, it faces a presidential veto threat, and is unlikely to advance in the Senate anyway. Nevertheless, the legislation represents a new opportunity for Keystone XL’s congressional supporters to pressure the White House into approving TransCanada Corp.’s pipeline, eight years after the company first proposed it.

And to congressional Democrats — including some who support the pipeline — Wednesday’s debate is a chance to get lawmakers on record on politically sensitive issues  surrounding the project.

For instance, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., wants the House to vote on an amendment that would add a provision stating  that using oil sands crude would boost heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions as much as 4.3 million passenger vehicles. Waxman’s proposal also would make the streamlined approval of Keystone XL under the bill contingent on oil sands producers or TransCanda fully offsetting greenhouse gas emissions associated with the project.

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Other lawmakers are using amendments to highlight the risk of leaks along the pipeline’s path, after recent spills of diluted bitumen have proved more difficult to clean up than anticipated. TransCanada has acknowledged that oil sands-derived crudes can be driven to the bottom of  turbulent water, sticking to rocks and making clean up more challenging.

But the company says  the products that Keystone XL would carry are no more corrosive than other crudes. It repeatedly has pledged  to follow 57 extra conditions for design, maintenance and testing, in addition to all other  federal safety regulations.l

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., has proposed an amendment that would require a study on the health effects of air pollution in communities surrounding refineries that process crude transported by the Keystone XL pipeline.

The House also is set to vote on an amendment that would require a government analysis of the projected costs, environmental damage and health effects of a spill from the pipeline.

Another proposal seeks to revive debate over who stands to benefit from Keystone XL’s construction and whether the oil sands crude transported across the United States would actually remain in the country. The House is set to vote on an amendment by Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., that would require oil and refined fuels associated with the Keystone XL pipeline to be used within U.S. borders unless that prohibition is waived by the president.

The underlying bill 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 legal challenges to be filed within 60 days.

Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Houston, has proposed an amendment that would expand the time for filing legal claims to one year. On Wednesday, she argued that the bill’s requirement for challengers to file their legal claims against Keystone XL in a Washington, D.C.-based federal court — imposing too high a burden for critics in far-flung states.

In early debate Wednesday afternoon, congressional Democrats derided the bill as a political messaging bill that would do an end-run around the formal process for evaluating border-crossing energy infrastructure first established by former President George W. Bush in 2004.

“For the eighth time in two-and-a-half years, we’re voting on another Keystone XL measure that will never become law,” said Jared Polis, D-Colo.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., called the legislation “a reckless attempt to sideline environmental review.”

Republicans insisted that the measure is necessary to prod action on the pipeline, after years of environmental reviews and government study. Terry called it “paralysis by analysis.”

The administration rejected a permit for the border-crossing pipeline last year, after the State Department concluded it needed to do more environmental analysis of a new route through Nebraska. After conducting a fresh environmental study, the State Department on March 1 concluded that the project is unlikely to dramatically boost demand for Canada’s oil sands, rebutting a major concern voiced by environmentalists opposed to the pipeline.

Under a 9-year-old executive order, the State Department is tasked with determining whether the project is in the “national interest.” If any one of eight separate federal agencies disagrees with State’s decision, that would launch a process that would put the final verdict in President Barack Obama’s hands.

Now, a final decision could be many months — if not a year — away. Last month, TransCanada predicted that the project will not be completed until the second half of 2015.

In the meantime, TransCanada Corp., is already building the southern leg of the pipeline.

The backdrop for the debate over Keystone XL is a bigger fight over the Canadian oil sands development. Environmentalists contend that the proposed pipeline would spur more oil development in Alberta using more energy-intensive techniques than extraction of conventional crudes. The result, these critics say, is more greenhouse gas emissions over the entire life of the oil sands crude — from its initial extraction to its combustion.

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.

Pipeline backers also say Keystone XL would ensure a source of heavy crude from a North American ally, displacing supplies from Venezuela and declining imports from Mexico.