WASHINGTON, March 13, 2014 – Supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada to Texas, continue to search for a way to get veto-proof congressional approval for the proposal, which has been on the back-burner for several years.
Pressure is also being put on the State Department, which has been involved in a lengthy permit review process for the project. But as that process drags on, some lawmakers have been eyeing legislative procedures to get it through the Senate. Keystone opponents claim they submitted 2 million comments in the public comment period for the review, which closed Friday, while supporters say they made 500,000 submissions.
The pipeline would transport oil from the Alberta tar oil sands to refineries along the Gulf Coast. 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, while supporters have said it would create thousands of jobs and lower U.S. reliance on foreign oil.
The House already has approved two pieces of legislation that would essentially take the decision out of the hands of the administration. And last year, more than 60 senators signed a letter urging the project’s approval. However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, have routinely opposed bringing a bill to the floor.
The issue is expected to get more attention today when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds a hearing on the pipeline. Some observers find it odd that Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., would hold the hearing, considering the pipeline is overwhelmingly supported by Republican lawmakers with just a spattering of Democratic backing. A committee aide noted that Menendez had said he would take up the issue after the State Department released an environmental impact statement, which it did last month. Speculation is that Menendez and other committee Democrats hope to shoot down arguments in support of the pipeline.
Karen Alderman Harbert, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s CEO Institute for 21st Century Energy, and James L. Jones, president of Jones Group International, are among supporters scheduled to testify. A chamber aide said Harbert is expected to highlight national security implications of the project, “specifically, the need for America to import oil from secure and reliable allies like Canada as opposed to other nations that don’t share our values and are not as stable.”
Harbert also will point out the economic benefits of the pipeline, and what might happen if the project is rejected, the aide said. “Finally, she’ll touch on the need for certainty for the business community and a streamlined process for energy infrastructure projects so that we don’t have five year delays in the future.”
Opponents scheduled to testify include Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, and James Hansen, adjunct professor at the Columbia University Earth Institute.
Another Senate aide close to the discussion said supporters are looking for a vehicle – possibilities include an upcoming energy efficiency bill - as an “avenue for a legislative fix.” “The road has to go through a vote,” the aide said.
Another possibility, considering there may be enough support in the Senate to overcome a 60-vote filibuster threshold, would be to offer a non-binding resolution as a Sense of the Senate saying the pipeline is in the national interest. That action would put more pressure on the administration, the aide said.
Still, the aide said Canada is not going to wait forever for U.S. approval, and that a decision needs to be made in the next year or two. “Canada could say, ‘Thanks, but we need to move on,’” the aide said. He noted Canada is considering its options to build pipelines to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which could facilitate oil sales to China and Europe via oil tankers.
The aide said his lawmaker has been in constant talks with Canadian officials, who said they could complete their regulatory process in a year to build a pipeline to either of their coasts.
“There’s a lot of interest in private investment,” he said. “[The oil] is going to be sold somewhere. I think we’ll be hearing more about them threatening to pull out [from the U.S. project].”
And even if lawmakers can figure out a way around Reid and Boxer -- or get approval from the administration – the project could get tied up for years in court.
Another congressional aide said he is not anticipating congressional or substantial State Department action this year. “Odds are it will be post-election,” the aide said, referring to the November mid-term elections.
Regardless of the potential stall on action, lawmakers on both sides of the issues have been actively voicing their opinions in the past few weeks.
In a release, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said the project “would improve our energy stability, jump-start economic growth and job creation (this is genuinely a shovel-ready jobs and infrastructure project of the kind the president likes to champion) and reduce reliance on foreign sources of oil, and that’s beneficial for America’s national security interest.”
Boxer recently held a press conference in which she again denounced the project as a potential environmental disaster. “I believe the health impacts of tar sands oil are being ignored,” Boxer said. “We need to clearly understand that as tar sands oil flows to our Gulf Coast refineries, it will increase the toxic pollution that already plagues communities near many refineries.”
Meanwhile, environmental groups have been gearing up to fight the pipeline proposal with groups such as CREDO and the Rainforest Action Network promising to “unleash a massive wave of civil disobedience.”
“If State Department Secretary John Kerry truly believes that climate change is a weapon of mass destruction - then he must oppose the carbon bomb that is Keystone XL,” said Elijah Zarlin, CREDO’s senior campaign manager. “Secretary Kerry inherited a mess in the State Department’s evaluation process, and more than 86,000 Americans stand ready to risk arrest if he fails to recognize the climate impact of this disastrous project.”
On Tuesday, more than two dozen people were arrested after they blocked entrances to a federal office building in Philadelphia to protest the pipeline.
Countering the environmental groups, Cindy Schild, American Petroleum Institute’s downstream operations senior manager of refining and oil sands, urged President Obama to approve the project without further delay.
“The needlessly long review of the Keystone XL pipeline continues to deprive thousands of Americans of good-paying jobs and the nation of a vital piece of energy infrastructure,” Schild said.
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