House passes bill to force Obama decision on Canada-Texas pipeline

House Republicans approved legislation Monday to force the Obama administration to make a decision in the coming months on a controversial proposed pipeline project that would carry oil from Canada to Texas.

The House passed the bill in a 279-147 vote, mostly along party lines. Forty-seven Democrats voted in favor of the legislation, while three Republicans opposed it. The proposal faces an uphill battle in the Senate.

TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone XL project has ignited a firestorm in Washington in recent months amid a rash of pipeline incidents that have exacerbated long-standing objections to the proposal from environmental groups and many Democrats.

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“If we’re going to rush through the environmental permitting process for a project that has questionable benefits for our nation, we ought to at least acknowledge the risks,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said during floor debate Tuesday.

But Republicans say the proposed pipeline would create thousands of jobs and make the country less reliant on Middle Eastern oil. They have accused the Obama administration of slow-walking a multi-agency review of the project headed up by the State Department.

“Every additional barrel that can be produced here in North America is one fewer barrel that we need to import from the Middle East,” Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) said Tuesday on the floor.

The bill, authored by Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), seeks to ensure that the administration expedites its Keystone XL review, which has dragged on for years while the State Department sought additional environmental analysis. The legislation would require that the Obama administration make a final decision on the pipeline by Nov. 1.

The White House said Monday the legislation is “unnecessary” because the State Department is slated to make a decision on the Keystone XL permit application by the end of the year, within two months of the deadline established in the bill. But the White House did not threaten to veto the bill.

TransCanada filed its permit application with the State Department at the end of 2008. The department has issued two environmental reviews of the project and plans to issue a final review next month.

The nearly 1,700-mile proposed Keystone XL pipeline would carry oil from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. The project would expand TransCanada’s existing Keystone pipeline, which runs from Alberta to Oklahoma.

Floor debate Tuesday underscored the deep divide between Republicans and Democrats on energy policy. 

Democrats painted Republicans as protectors of oil-industry interests.

“Once again, it’s all about this ideological belief that the largest oil companies know best,” Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said. “ 'We should not be taxing them, we should not be putting any extra burden on these oil companies.' ”

And Republicans said Democrats were out of touch with the country’s energy needs.

"Some environmental extremists are against the project," Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) said in Tuesday morning remarks. "Of course they are. They are against every type of energy that comes from below the ground."

In addition, Republicans warned the United States must act quickly to take advantage of Canadian oil sands before other countries do.

“If we do not tap this valuable resource, the Chinese or other countries will,” Flores said.

But Democrats countered that there is no guarantee that oil piped to refineries in Texas will remain in the United States, arguing that they could be funneled into global markets.

"This oil is not for domestic consumption," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) on the House floor. "This oil is for foreign export. It has very little to do with domestic oil supply, or it might have very little to do with domestic oil supply."

Democrats also blasted the environmental impacts of oil sands production, which emits more greenhouse gases than conventional oil production.

“We are here debating whether to expedite the approval of a pipeline that will import the dirtiest crude oil on the planet into the United States of America,” Markey said.

Passage of the legislation comes just weeks after an ExxonMobil pipeline leaked an estimated 42,000 gallons of oil into a Montana river. The spill gained widespread attention and offered environmental groups fuel for their opposition to the Keystone XL project.

TransCanada has faced criticism in recent months for a series of small leaks along its existing Keystone pipeline. Federal regulators in June mandated that the Keystone pipeline remain shut down until the company met a number of safety requirements. The regulators approved the restart of the pipeline a day later.

TransCanada has said it learned from its recent pipeline incidents and maintains that the proposed Keystone XL project is “designed to be among the safest pipelines in North America.”

The oil industry has lobbied extensively for the approval of the Keystone permit. Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, American Petroleum Institute Executive Vice President Marty Durbin dismissed concerns from Democrats that forcing a decision on the project by Nov. 1 amounts to rushing the administration’s safety and environmental review.

“To say that a process that has taken almost three years now is rushing, I just can’t agree with that,” Durbin said, adding that the State Department has subjected the project to “extensive analysis and review.”


—Pete Kasperowicz contributed to this story.