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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.

The invited witnesses include: Dan McFadyen, chairman of the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board; Murray Smith, president of Murray Smith & Associates; Alex Pourbaix, president of energy and oil pipelines at TransCanada; Stephen Kelly, assistant general president of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters; James Burkhard, managing director of Global Oil at IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates; and Jeremy Symons, senior vice president for conservation and education at the National Wildlife Federation.

It is likely that Symons will be the only witness to offer any harsh words about TransCanada's idea to extend its already-operating Keystone pipeline by adding on the Keystone XL.

Ideally, National Wildlife Federation spokesman Tony Iallonardo told SolveClimate News, the committee's Republicans and Democrats should have agreed to invite at least one person who lived through the Michigan oil spill to testify at the hearing.

Michigan's Kalamazoo River is still fouled by the aftermath of a rupture along a pipeline between Indiana and Ontario that dumped more than 800,000 gallons of heavy crude last July. Submerged oil meant an Environmental Protection Agency-enforced ban on wading, swimming and fishing along a 30-mile stretch of the river remained in place months after the spill.

That Michigan pipeline is part of the Lakehead system operated by Canadian-based Enbridge Energy Partners. Both conventional oil and tar sands oil — diluted bitumen — are shipped via the Lakehead system that goes from the Canadian border to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan.

"We're kind of stumped for an explanation of why Upton is doing what he's doing," Iallonardo said. "In our minds, the lesson from Kalamazoo is that we need more studies of the harm tar sands can cause. We don’t need to hit the gas pedal harder and risk another tragic spill."

Instead, of promoting legislation that skirts proper environmental review of Keystone XL, he added, Upton should be moving quickly to pass legislation that would ensure pipelines can safely transport diluted bitumen, which has been shown to be more corrosive and more difficult to clean up than conventional oil.

Watchdogs Demand Clinton Correspondence

Upton and his committee, it turns out, aren't the only ones prodding the State Department to meet a specific deadline.

After waiting five months for department officials to release possible communications between TransCanada chief lobbyist Paul Elliott and Clinton, four environmental and ethics organizations sued the State Department Wednesday.

TransCanada hired the native New Yorker as its government relations director more than two and a half years ago. He served as a presidential campaign manager for Clinton in 2008.

Earthjustice, a public interest law firm, is representing Friends of the Earth, the Center for International Environmental Law and Corporate Ethics International in the lawsuit.

"This raises important questions of transparency and fairness," said Sarah Burt, an Earthjustice attorney. "If a decision to approve a transcontinental pipeline is made based on relationships and access to Clinton, while completely overlooking the significant environmental and public health dangers posed by the pipeline, the public needs to be aware of it."

In early January, State Department authorities rejected a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that Friends of the Earth and the two other advocacy groups initiated in mid-December. That refusal prompted the three watchdog groups to file an appeal with the State Department Jan. 31.

"Clearly, TransCanada hired Mr. Elliott to take advantage of his previous service to Hillary Clinton," said Kenny Bruno with Corporate Ethics International. "We think the public has a right to know in what ways TransCanada and Mr. Elliott have attempted to influence Secretary Clinton's view of this controversial project."

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