Understanding the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline approval provision in the transportation bill

The House is once again jeopardizing an important transportation bill by attaching non-related amendments, including a measure that would approve the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline that the President rejected in January. The bill is going into conference next week and many Senators have already spoken out strongly against having Congress approve the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. The House Keystone XL provision seems to rely on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), but really is a vehicle for Congress to rubber-stamp this dirty energy project without a process to assess the threat to our land, water, health, climate, economic well-being and security. Keystone XL would bring tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast for export. It would raise U.S. oil prices, put our waters and farms in jeopardy of hard to clean up tar sands oil spills, and would increase our dependence on oil – worsening climate change and undermining efforts to move to clean energy. A dirty energy project like Keystone XL has no place in the transportation bill.

So, let’s unpack what the provision to approve Keystone XL is all about: The House Federal Highway Extension bill, H.R.4348, contains a provision which would require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to approve a permit for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. This provision is a slightly modified version of H.R. 3548, a bill introduced by Rep. Lee Terry late in 2011. While the Senate passed a bipartisan transportation bill, the House was only able to pass this ninety-day extension for transportation funding. And they used it as a place for  non-related, partisan amendments such as approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.  

Like the Terry bill, the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline approval provision in H.R. 4348 would:

  1.  Give FERC 30 days to approve a permit for Keystone XL without additional conditions. In absence of FERC action, the permit will be granted by Congressional authority after 30 days.
  2. Give FERC 30 days to conduct a NEPA review and approve a route modification through Nebraska. In absence of FERC action, the Nebraska route will be automatically approved within 30 days.
  3. Suspend the national interest determination process required for transboundary energy projects  in Executive Order 13337 and any further environmental review of or public participation in the project under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

H.R. 4348 also contains language authorizing TransCanada to begin construction of Keystone XL outside of Nebraska before that state approves a new route. It  also changes prior language in the Terry bill that would have exempted Keystone XL from state and federal regulations such as the Clean Water Act.

When discussing Rep. Terry’s bill during a Congressional hearing and in press statements, FERC representatives have said their agency doesn’t have jurisdiction over hazardous liquid pipelines, that the provision doesn’t grant FERC actual authority, and that thirty days in not sufficient time to conduct a defensible review of Keystone XL. 

TransCanada has already said that it will reapply for permits for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. It is already moving forward with the southern segment and an application for the northern segment is expected at any time. Congressional approval of the pipeline takes away the ability of the government to carry out a thorough assessment of this pipeline and make sure it is in the national interest. For instance, in past months as gas prices have risen, the fact that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will cause oil prices to rise has become an important issue to consider. The Keystone XL pipeline will significantly increase the price of Canadian oil in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain states, putting increased pressure on gasoline prices when American consumers are already facing great pain at the pump. TransCanada originally pitched Keystone XL as a way to get oil out of the U.S. Midwest, claiming Keystone XL would eliminate the price difference between Canadian tar sands and similar crudes sold internationally.

Americans’ health and livelihood should not be subject to partisan gamesmanship.  The massive risks that would be borne by America would reward the tar sands industry and the world market, not American consumers and workers.  Allowing Keystone XL permitting language into a bill intended provide operation funding to the transportation system puts politics ahead of good policy and risks millions of American transportation jobs in the process.