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Michigan's Rep. Upton Emerges as a Champion of Oil Sands Pipeline

Upton's bill would force a State Dept. decision on the pipeline by Nov. 1; opponents sue for answers on Clinton's ties to the pipeline's D.C. lobbyist

May 20, 2011
Rep. Fred Upton

WASHINGTON— Environmentalists understand why so many House Republicans are gung-ho about upping imports of oil mined from the tar sands of Western Canada.

What puzzles them is why Michigan Rep. Fred Upton has emerged as one of the cause's lead GOP cheerleaders.

His full-throated support for the $7 billion Alberta-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline is evident in the form of a bill being circulated in draft form as the North American-Made Energy Security Act of 2011. The bill will undergo a public airing when the House Energy and Power Subcommittee convenes for a Monday afternoon hearing.

No doubt the former centrist's embrace of fossil fuels has tightened ever since he took charge of the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee in January. Even though the Democrat-led Senate is less likely to back such a measure, Upton's grip is alarming to conservationists who know how much power his panel wields on Capitol Hill.

"What this bill is doing is perpetuating myths about the tar sands that the Alberta government, the Canadian government and the oil industry want us to believe," Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, an oil sands specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council told SolveClimate News in an interview. "It's a way for them to promote their own products at the expense and well-being of the American people."

Casey-Lefkowitz and others tracking the proposed pipeline are curious how Upton can champion the oil sands cause when his home district in Southwestern Michigan is still recovering from one of the worst spills of diluted bitumen in U.S. history, the jury is still out on pipeline safety and added imports likely mean Midwesterners would be forced to fork over more money to fill their gas tanks.

"He's encouraging a pipeline to be built before we have adequate safety standards in place," said Casey-Lefkowitz, who directs NRDC’s international program. "This just doesn’t make sense when Upton has firsthand experience with the dangers of tar sands."

Calls requesting comment from Rep. Upton's office were not returned by deadline.

Bill Sets Nov. 1 Deadline

Casey-Lefkowitz and others point out that the May 16 draft of the subcommittee's bill contradicts most of the assertions about pipeline safety, greenhouse gas emissions and even the necessity of Keystone XL outlined in two recent reports.

One, a Department of Energy study called "Keystone XL Assessment," was completed in December and released in late January by the State Department. And two, NRDC joined research forces with the Pipeline Safety Trust, the National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club to publish the other report, "Tar Sands Pipeline Safety Risks," in mid-February.

One odd turn in the bill is that it insists the U.S. State Department issue a decision about granting a presidential permit for the Keystone XL by an evidently arbitrary Nov. 1 deadline.

Due to the international nature of 1,702-mile Keystone XL, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's team is tasked with deciding "yes" or "no" on whether the pipeline is allowed to cross the U.S.-Canadian border. The Canadian National Energy Board approved its portion of the project in March 2010. The proposed pathway of the U.S. section covers 1,375 miles through six states.

When the State Department released the revamped version of its Keystone XL environmental evaluation in mid-April, the timeline seemed to indicate Clinton would be making a final decision before the end of the year.

TransCanada is seeking permission to construct an underground pipeline to carry oil from the tar sands mines in its home province of Alberta, then through Montana, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas to oil refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. The pipeline giant has proposed building and operating infrastructure designed to pump up to 900,000 barrels of heavy crude daily.

It has the potential to double — or perhaps triple — the amount of diluted bitumen flowing to this country from its northern neighbor, though critics say it likely won't be needed until 2025 or 2030. Between 2000 and 2010, U.S. imports of diluted bitumen grew five-fold from 100,000 to 500,000 barrels per day. That number could balloon to 1.5 million barrels per day by 2019.

Pro-Pipeline Witnesses Dominate

Six witnesses are scheduled to offer testimony at the 3 p.m. Monday subcommittee hearing to be chaired by Rep. Ed Whitfield. The Kentucky Republican is one of 16 GOP subpanel members. Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois is the ranking member among the 11 Democrats on the subpanel.

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