House panel advances plan to pare border-crossing pipeline reviews

WASHINGTON — A House subcommittee on Wednesday advanced legislation that aims to speed up the government’s review of pipelines and power lines that cross U.S. borders into Mexico and Canada, over the objections of environmentalists and the Obama administration.

Bill supporters, including Democrat Gene Green of Houston and Michigan Republican Fred Upton, said the measure is necessary to put Congress’ stamp on a presidential permit process for border-crossing energy infrastructure projects that has developed from executive orders issued over decades.

The measure effectively would require federal agencies to approve proposed border-crossing energy projects within 120 days unless they are deemed to be against the national security interest of the United States — a lower bar than the  public interest threshold generally in place today.

The House Energy and Power Subcommittee voted 19-10 to approve the bill, sending it on to the full Energy and Commerce Committee for further debate. Green and Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., were the lone Democrats to cross party lines and vote for the legislation.

While the measure would not affect TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline, it was inspired by the 6-year-battle over that  project to connect oil sands projects in Alberta with refineries along the Gulf Coast.

Upton said the federal regulatory regime has failed to keep up with a domestic energy renaissance that requires changes to the network of pipelines and transmission lines criss-crossing North America.

“These projects, along with the jobs and economic growth they will help generate, may be sitting on the sidelines for years due to the precedent and uncertainty set with the Keystone XL pipeline,” Upton said.

Supporters say the bill would  leave largely unchanged other government reviews beyond any presidential permit decisions prompted by the border-crossing status. Bill backers fought off Democratic amendments that would have forced broader reviews of the environmental consequences and climate change effects posed by proposed border-crossing energy infrastructure projects.

“We’re looking out for the public interest of Canada and Mexico, but what about the United States?” questioned Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

Waxman said the narrower national security standard proposed by the bill would block a high-level review of the potential effects of proposed projects.

“This would prevent federal agencies from even considering whether the project might have an adverse effect on communities and landowners on the potential route,” he said. “Just because it came from Canada or Mexico shouldn’t preclude us from looking at the safety.”

Green noted the disparity in government reviews today for all forms of transporting crude and gas across borders; for instance, while pipelines currently must get a presidential permit and survive State Department reviews, trucks and rails are not subjected to the same scrutiny. Either way, Green said, the fossil fuels are moving through the United States.

Green said pipelines are “inherently safer,” and that the products eventually will come to Gulf Coast refineries one way or another. You can bring that product in by a less-safe way,” he said. “Why would we not make it safer?”

Administration officials and government regulators have been skeptical of the legislation. The director of energy projects at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission told lawmakers last month that the measure could curtail environmental assessments beyond the presidential permit stage.

Green and Upton have insisted their goal is to focus on streamlining the presidential permit part of the process — not further down the line. On Wednesday, Upton pledged to work with Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., on new language that would preserve existing requirements for environmental assessments of the energy projects inside the United States.