Deeply flawed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline bill approved by House Committee

The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a deeply flawed bill that would use Congressional authority to permit TransCanada’s Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. The bill, H.R. 3548, would force the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to grant a permit for Keystone XL before the entire route for the pipeline through Nebraska has been determined. The sponsor of the bill, Lee Terry, claims that his legislation is simply a way to give the Keystone XL decision to experts at an independent agency. That rationale evaporated when experts at FERC told Terry that his bill doesn’t actually give the agency any authority and even if it did, no agency could arrive at a defensible decision within 30 days. Yesterday the House Energy and Commerce made it clear that it is not concerned with arriving at a defensible decision on Keystone XL.

The approval of H.R. 3548 by the Energy and Commerce Committee is just another instance of political theatrics by proponents Keystone XL. It started when Congress attached a rider forcing President Obama to make a decision on the pipeline within 60 days, before a new route for Keystone XL in Nebraska had even been proposed, let alone reviewed. The Obama administration declined to approve a project on an arbitrary timetable which prevented federal experts from doing environmental review and determining whether the project was actually in the U.S. national interest. FERC, an independent agency outside of either Presidential or Congressional oversight, has offered tacit approval of the President’s approach. In his Congressional testimony, FERC’s Director of Energy Projects Jeffery Wright agreed that Congress’s arbitrary political deadline does not permit policymakers “to arrive at a defensible decision” on Keystone XL. 

The problem with the criticism that the environmental review process for Keystone XL has already taken too long is that TransCanada is responsible for much of the delay. TransCanada impeded its own environmental review by providing federal investigators with inaccurate information. Federal investigators didn’t do environmental assessments on alternative routes through Nebraska because TransCanada told them that routes other than the one through Nebraska’s sensitive Sandhills would be economically infeasible (pg. 4-49, Final EIS of Keystone XL). We now know that’s not the case – but their bluff delayed the environmental review of alternative routes for their project.

Several amendments to H.R. 3548 were proposed and voted down in the markup:

  • Representative Markey offered an amendment would have prevented most of the tar sands on the pipeline from being exported after arriving on the Gulf Coast. TransCanada has forecast that its pipeline will raise U.S. oil prices by $2 billion to $4 billion a year as it brings oil from the Midwest were it can be processed and exported internationally.
  •  Rep. Mike Doyle offered an amendment that challenged TransCanada to certify its claim that the majority of the steel in Keystone XL was made in the U.S. or Canada. The Congressman accused TransCanada of misleading the American public that the pipeline would be built with American steel, saying “I don’t believe there’s a lick of US or Canada steel in this pipeline. But I would love to be proved wrong.”  
  • Rep. Eshoo proposed an amendment that would require that the Pipeline and Hazardous Safety Materials Administration (PHMSA) complete its review of the risks associated with diluted bitumen pipelines before allowing TransCanada to build one.
  • Rep. Rush proposed an amendment which would have prohibited TransCanada from using eminent domain powers to seize land along the route of Keystone XL.
  • Rep. Dingell offered an amendment which would have restarted the environmental review and national interest determination for Keystone XL.

What’s next? House leadership has signaled its intention to attach a Keystone XL bill to what the American people consider must-pass legislation. That likely means either the extension of the payroll tax cut or the transportation bill. These bills have three things in common: 1) without unrelated riders, they have ostensible bipartisan support; 2) they offer substantial benefits to the American people throughout the country; and 3) they have absolutely nothing to do with Keystone XL. There are precious few areas where Congress has a chance of passing something that helps the country – and House leadership is poised to scuttle those with an unrelated Keystone XL rider.

President Obama put the public’s safety and the nation’s lands and water above the interests of Big Oil when he rejected the pipeline. The House Energy and Commerce Committee have responded with a bill that would make middle America the middle man for Canadian crude on its way to foreign markets.