Senate committee looks at national importance of Keystone project

By Derrick Cain

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, March 17, 2014 - Supporters and opponents of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project squared off last week during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The committee held a hearing Thursday on “Keystone XL and the National Interest Determination” despite the general opposition to the project from Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J. “I have called for this hearing because this committee has been a bastion of bipartisanship when it comes to such issues, and…I know we can have a rational discussion,” Menendez said. “I want to have a full-throated, open discussion.”

The pipeline would transport oil from the Alberta oil sands south to refineries in Texas. Opponents argue the 1,700-mile project would increase global warming and make the U.S. more dependent on “dirty fossil fuel.” The Obama administration has repeatedly said the pipeline needs more study. Supporters have said it would create thousands of jobs, promote economic development, and lower U.S. reliance on foreign oil. They argue the alleged harm to the environment is overstated.

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Committee ranking member Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he was concerned the administration did not send an official to provide testimony at the hearing. “The link between our national energy security and the pipeline is clear,” Corker said. The senator said the pipeline would strengthen ties with Canada and provide lesser dependence on foreign fuels.

In support of the pipeline, James L. Jones, president of the Jones Group International, told lawmakers that cancelling the pipeline does not mean the oil from Canadian oil sand deposits will go undeveloped, “sparing the world some modest increment of carbon emissions.”

Jones said Canada's prime minister has promised the nation's oil sands will be developed and arrangements are being made if the United States does not approve the pipeline. Jones said Canada's environmental record is solid, and that “if the Keystone pipeline is not approved, the perverse result would be that the hydrocarbons will go to countries with very poor environmental records rather than to the United States, where our regulations are comprehensive, strong, and enforced.” He said five federal studies have concluded the pipeline will have no net negative impact on the environment.

Jones said the decision on the pipeline is a litmus test of whether America is serious about national, regional, and global energy security, and “the world is watching.” He said Russia's latest involvement with Crimea is about exercising political power through the control of energy and illustrates the need for the United States to be more energy secure.

In opposition to the project, Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said the pipeline would significantly exacerbate climate pollution because it would increase the development of the tar sands substantially. Brune said a recent report from the England-based organization Carbon Tracker showed the pipeline would enable additional production of roughly 500,000 barrels per day and trigger the emissions equivalent of building 46 new coal plants.

Brune said the pipeline would produce up to 15,000 tons of petroleum coke, or petcoke, each day, which he described as a filthy byproduct of tar sands production that is hazardous to communities and has its own major climate implications. He said petcoke resembles coal and commonly replaces coal as a fuel in power plants and other industry processes. “Transporting tar sands crude oil into the United States poses a different risk to communities and natural resources than conventional oil does,” Brune said. “The impacts of spills can be much greater than conventional crude, and effective clean-up methods do not yet exist…any spill from this pipeline could be catastrophic.”

Brune summed his testimony up by saying, “It's all risk and no rewards.”

Echoing Brune, James Hansen, adjunct professor and director of the Earth Institute Program on Climate Science, Awareness, and Solutions at Columbia University, told lawmakers that the United States has already “burned” its share of the “global carbon budget.”

“While it can be argued that the United States has a right to burn its own resources, we have no right to unlimited use of the global atmosphere as a waste dump,” Hansen said. “The capacity of that dump is limited. We have filled much of that dump, leaving little room for other nations. If other nations follow our example, the consequences, without question, will be catastrophic for all.”

In support of the project, Karen Alderman Harbert, president and chief executive officer of the Institute for 21st Century Energy at the Chamber of Commerce, said the economic impact and long term benefits of the construction of the pipeline are significant and vitally important to U.S. jobs and the sluggish economy. Harbert said the State Department has estimated the pipeline would create about 42,100 U.S. jobs during construction, generating about $2 billion in earnings for workers.

She said the pipeline would “enhance an already deep trading relationship” with Canada. It is estimated that for every $1.00 spent to buy oil from Canada, $0.89 is returned in the purchase of U.S. goods or services. The development of Canadian oil sands resources already supports tens of thousands of American workers.

The approval of the Keystone XL pipeline will help allow for the continued growth in development of the oil sands and an increased flow of trade between the U.S. and Canada. Harbert said a recent poll shows that 65 percent of Americans support the pipeline.

“There is no doubt that the oil sands in Alberta will be developed, and the only question is where the oil will go,” she said. “America has a choice of getting more oil from its trusted ally Canada and in the process increasing revenue and investments in the U.S. or sending more of our hard earned money to unfriendly or unreliable countries.”

Menendez entered into a heated exchange with Harbert, asking her four times if the Chamber thinks climate change is “real and caused by humans.”

Harbert said the Chamber has a long record of supporting the environment, and that climate change is “caused by a lot of different things.” “Climate is warming…but you can't say climate change is only caused by humans,” she said. 

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