Senate should not approve defunct Keystone XL tar sands pipeline

Many Senate Republicans are pushing yet another bill to approve the already rejected TransCanada Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. The bill, proposed by Senator Hoeven, would require the approval of a complex dirty energy project without necessary environmental review or a process to determine if the project is in the national interest. The Hoeven bill would attach a partisan, unrelated rider to the Senate Transportation bill – legislation which historically has been a bastion of bipartisanship. The vote to amend the Transportation bill with a rider require the approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is likely to happen this week.  Congress is not a permitting body and should not pass laws to circumvent a process designed to protect the public’s safety, health, and economic well being. Overriding that process to approve a tar sands pipeline that will worsen climate change, have  high chance of oil spills, and raise oil prices – all so that tar sands companies can get a higher price for their product on the international market is not in the public interest. Make no mistake, the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and the Hoeven bill requiring its approval are in the oil industry’s interest, not that of the American public.  

As we have written before, the Keystone XL pipeline is a proposal by TransCanada to bring tar sands from Alberta across the farms and rivers of America’s heartland to Texas from where the oil industry has said that much of it would be exported. In doing this, the pipeline will divert oil from the Midwest – raising oil prices as that region suddenly has access to less oil.

Tar sands crude also has much higher greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil and presents additional risks of spills when moved on pipelines. Once spilled, tar sands crude is significantly more difficult to clean up. Federal regulators have yet to evaluate the safety risks of tar sands pipelines like Keystone XL – in fact, the Senate recently passed a law instructing the Pipeline and Hazardous Safety Materials Administration (PHMSA) to determine the risks of tar sands pipelines like Keystone XL and evaluate new regulations to address those risks. Needless to say, it would be unwise to remove additional environmental protections from a project with significant risks that are not fully understood.

Let’s take a closer look at the proposal that many Senate Republicans are pushing. The Hoeven bill would use Congressional authority to permit the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. This will circumvent the Presidential Permitting process established by President George W. Bush in Executive Order 13337 to ensure that international pipelines are only built if they are in the U.S. national interest and maintain safety, public health and environmental protections. There are obvious reasons why Congress does not engage in permitting decisions that require objective technical, economic and scientific analysis.

In addition, the Hoeven bill would exempt the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from further federal environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Remember, a route for the pipeline through Nebraska hasn’t been even proposed, much less evaluated for its impacts. The route originally proposed for Keystone XL took it through Nebraska’s Sandhills, a critical source of fresh ground water for the United States. After strong bi-partisan opposition in Nebraska, the company is now looking for alternative routes – but these still have to be assessed as they would all cross important farmland and waters.  The Hoeven bill would exempt the new Nebraska route from federal review.

In fact, the Hoeven bill would allow TransCanada to begin building Keystone XL before Nebraska has finished its consideration of routes through the state. This would put enormous amounts of pressure on Nebraska as it conducts its review. Last November, as Nebraska’s Senators considered enacting a pipeline routing law in a special session, TransCanada’s attorneys threatened the state with expensive lawsuits if it did anything to interfere with the company’s plans or timeline. President Obama’s decision to delay the process relieved much of the pressure that Nebraska was under. By suspending further federal review, the Hoeven bill would put the pressure back on Nebraska.

This is not the first time Keystone XL proponents in the Senate have tried to interfere with the Presidential Permitting process. In December, Senators Lugar, Hoeven and Vitter authored legislation placing an arbitrary sixty day deadline for a decision on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and attached it as a rider to the payroll taxcut bill – putting tax relief for millions in danger.

With only 60 days to conduct a review that would take at least a year, President Obama rejected TransCanada’s application for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Attempting to exempt Keystone XL from adequate review and oversight was a bad idea then and is a bad idea now.

The United States has a rigorous permitting process for international pipelines designed to protect the public’s safety, health, and economic well being. A project like the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is exactly the type of project that needs careful consideration and not a rubber-stamp.  The Senate should vote “no” to any attempt to attach approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to the Transportation bill.

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