House panel votes to speed cross-border pipeline permits

 

The House Energy and Commerce Committee voted Thursday to set a time limit on the federal government’s consideration of cross-border oil pipelines like Keystone XL and remove the president’s role in the process.

The bill that the panel originally considered late Wednesday would have exempted oil and gas pipelines into Canada or Mexico from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), mandated that the government only block projects if they are against the national security interest, and removed the State Department from the process.

But by Thursday morning, Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) proposed an amendment to roll back some of the larger changes.

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“This approach is a sincere effort to focus a targeted solution to lessons learned from the Keystone pipeline,” Upton said. “No one can rightly argue that the current presidential permit process at the State Department is not broken, no matter what side of the climate debate you’re on.”

Upton said the new bill takes politics out of the permitting decision by removing the need for the president to issue a permit. President Obama still has not issued a permit for Keystone XL more than five years after TransCanada Corp. applied for it, angering Republicans.

“This amendment simply puts this infrastructure on par with what already happens with natural gas pipelines that cross the border, a commonsense and very transparent approach,” Upton said. He sponsored the amendment along with Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), the bill’s original sponsor.

It would set a 120-day limit on the State Department's consideration after it completes the environmental review process. And it would maintain the department's role in deciding whether a project is in the national interest, but it would add a presumption of such interest. The original bill said that officials could only reject a permit if it violated national security interests.

Democrats welcomed the changes, but nearly all voted against the bill, saying the amendment did not go far enough to allay their concerns. Most important, the bill would restrict environmental review to the segment of the pipeline that crosses the border, not its entire length.

“That’s a dramatic narrowing of the federal environmental review for pipelines,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the panel.

“Under this amendment, the environmental review of the Keystone pipeline would only examine the environmental impacts of the little piece of the pipeline that crosses the border with Canada, not the impacts on climate change, including all of that tar sands oil in the middle of the United States,” he said.

Democrats also objected to the presumption of national interest.

While the bill would not apply to any current applications, such as Keystone XL, it would allow such projects to re-apply after July 2016 under the new standards.

“The bill still provides a way for controversial tar sands pipelines, including Keystone, to slip through the back door for approval, even if the administration determines that those pipelines are not in the national interest,” Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) said.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) contradicted Democrats’ arguments about the environmental review, saying other portions of projects that would otherwise need review would still be subject.

“I think the Upton-Green amendment does exactly what it says it’s going to do,” he said. “Nothing in this bill would limit the application of NEPA to the rest of the project.”