House Republicans huddle to weigh options if Obama kills Keystone pipeline

Top House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans, bracing for White House rejection of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, mulled plans to force approval of the controversial project at a meeting Tuesday.

Two senior committee members said Tuesday evening that options include Rep. Lee Terry’s (R-Neb.) bill that would place the permit decision in the hands of independent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), taking it away from the State Department.

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“If we can somehow or other get it over to FERC, so that [Obama] is not involved in the decision-making, that is something that we could consider doing,” Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), the head of the panel’s Energy and Power Subcommittee, told reporters in the Capitol.

Terry’s plan, first unveiled late last year, would limit FERC’s discretion to reject TransCanada Corp.’s proposed $7 billion Alberta-to-Texas pipeline.

Terry and Whitfield said the pipeline issue was discussed briefly Tuesday. Terry said Tuesday’s meeting was among committee leaders, and that a broader discussion among Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans will occur next week.

“The FERC issue is one that’s on the table,” he said in the Capitol. “That is still alive.”

President Obama, under a GOP provision in the payroll tax cut extension deal enacted in December, faces a Feb. 21 deadline to make a decision about the pipeline. White House officials have signaled that Obama is likely not to issue a permit by Feb. 21, claiming the plan does not allow adequate review.



The House talks come after senior House and Senate GOP aides began signaling last week that they will explore legislative options to keep pressure on Obama if he rejects the pipeline or somehow shirks the Feb. 21 deadline.


Whitfield and Terry said talks could consider Sen. John Hoeven’s (R-N.D.) planned bill that would put the final decision on Keystone in the hands of Congress, not the White House. Whitfield said that if Obama does not approve the pipeline in February, “everything will be on the table.”

“We are going to make every effort to see to it that this pipeline is built,” he said.

Terry said that lawmakers have not decided whether to wait for the White House to make its decision or begin pushing new legislation sooner.

“All of those are going to be discussed in full next week, and we will see . . . where we can build a consensus,” said Terry, who is vice-chairman of the subcommittee on communications and technology.

Plans that would force or effectively force approval of the pipeline – rather than just setting a timeline for a decision – are highly unlikely to clear the Senate or become law.

But pushing Keystone-related bills would provide Republicans new opportunities to attack the White House over the project.

The pipeline is politically tricky for President Obama heading into his reelection fight.

Environmentalists, who have made stopping Keystone a top priority, oppose it due to greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta’s massive oil sands projects and other ecological concerns. They're planning to step up pressure on Congress next week.

Industry groups, many Republicans, and a number of unions – which like environmentalists are part of Obama’s political base – are pushing for the project. Proponents say it will boost energy security and create large numbers of jobs.

The Obama administration last November said it was delaying a final decision until after the 2012 elections, citing the need for more review, but the payroll tax deal is forcing nearer-term action.