Republican Keystone XL bill is not as advertised: Here are the facts

The Republican leadership’s latest gambit to force through TransCanada’s Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is a measure proposed by Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) in December. GOP leadership apparently decided to rally behind Terry’s bill, H.R. 3548, after discussing various options with TransCanada in a conference call. It’s easy to see why TransCanada would favor this bill. Why it’s in the interest of the American people is much less clear. But the Republicans must not feel too comfortable with this plan because they are offering misleading and woefully incomplete descriptions of the bill.

Here are two important things you should know about the bill:

  1. Terry’s bill does not give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) authority to consider granting Keystone XL a Presidential permit. Instead, the bill mandates approval of the pipeline – it does not give FERC actual decision making authority.
  2. Terry’s bill would exempt the pipeline from critical environmental requirements that apply to every other pipeline in the United States – laws that govern pipeline operators’ liability and clean up responsibilities for oil spills that contaminate the nation’s air and water.

Terry is selling his H.R. 3548 as a vehicle to take Keystone XL decision away from a political body and “letting the experts on pipelines make decisions on whether this is a sound pipeline.” There is a big problem with this argument. Terry’s bill only authorizes FERC to “approve” Keystone XL within thirty days – the bill doesn’t actually give the agency authority to deny a permit for the pipeline. If FERC does not act, Keystone XL would be approved under Congressional authority in thirty days. Terry is only interested in FERC if the agency agrees with him.

It’s only fair to point out that FERC doesn’t agree with Terry. The agency has pointed out that the Nebraska Congressman has misrepresented its expertise and jurisdiction. While not addressing Terry’s bill specifically, FERC’s spokeswoman noted that the agency does not oversee oil pipeline siting decisions or safety standards.

It is interesting that pro-Keystone XL Congress members haven’t discussed the second part of the Terry bill, which would exempt TransCanada from state and federal regulations that domestic pipeline operators must abide by. The bill would exempt TransCanada from any U.S. law other than the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHSMA) safety regulations and FERC’s authority to regulate pipelines rates.

That means TransCanada will be free to disregard the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act – laws that, among other things, make pipeline operators responsible for the spills that pollute the nation’s air and water. Republican leadership has not made the case why TransCanada should be exempted from the laws with which U.S. pipeline companies must comply. It’s a hard case to make, given that Keystone I, the first crude pipeline owned and operated by TransCanada, spilled over 22,000 gallons and was the newest pipeline to be shut down by pipeline regulators as an imminent threat to public safety and the environment.

Our lawmakers need to take serious steps to achieve energy independence and get our country back to work. Investments and jobs in clean energy is something our country can get behind. So why is Speaker Boehner pushing a divisive project that isn’t shovel ready and threatens our country’s land and water? He seems to be playing politics with the concerns of Americans to benefit Big Oil.

About the Authors

Anthony Swift

Director, Canada Project, International program

Join Us