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State Dept's Timetable for Keystone XL Pipeline Decision Irks Both Sides

The agency's plan to complete its pipeline review by year-end has left both critics — and the GOP supporters who want to fast-track the process — unhappy

Jul 27, 2011
Keystone pipeline

WASHINGTON — Rep. Lee Terry and Sen. Mike Johanns might share some of the same constituents in Nebraska. But the two Republicans have mighty vast differences in their respective approaches to a controversial $7 billion oil sands pipeline seemingly destined to slice through the biological heart and lungs of their home state.

Terry's "fierce urgency of now" approach is reflected in a fast-tracked bill the seven-term lawmaker authored that would force the Obama administration to reach a decision about TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline by Nov. 1. It soared through the full GOP-majority House Tuesday evening on a 279-147 vote.

However, Johanns has predicted that the North American-Made Energy Security Act (H.R. 1938) doesn't have a prayer of sneaking through the upper chamber.

Alternatively, the rookie senator and former Agriculture Department secretary has politely but firmly coaxed the State Department to reconsider sullying Nebraska's fragile sandhills landscape and thirst-quenching Ogallala Aquifer with a 36-inch diameter underground pipeline.

Conservation organizations dismissed the House vote as a handout to the fossil fuels industry during a Tuesday teleconference with reporters.

It's one more indication that House Republican leadership is pushing harmful and destructive bills at the behest of Big Oil instead of becoming serious about solving the country's severe energy policy shortcomings, said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs with the League of Conservation Voters

The White House announced its opposition to Terry's bill Monday. A two-paragraph statement from the Office of Management and Budget labeled the bill as "unnecessary" because the State Department has already committed to reaching a decision by the end of this year.

"Further, the bill conflicts with long-standing executive branch procedures regarding the authority of the president and the secretary of state," the statement read. "[It] could prevent the thorough consideration of complex issues which could have serious security, safety, environmental and other ramifications."

TransCanada: Fingers Crossed

TransCanada, the Calgary-based pipeline behemoth seeking the federal government's blessing to construct the Keystone XL pipeline 1,702 miles from Alberta's oil sands mines to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries, is unfazed by machinations on Capitol Hill.

"We'll let the process in Congress take the steps it is taking," TransCanada spokesman James Millar told SolveClimate News in a telephone interview. "We'll let the politicians deal with that. More of our focus is on our relationship with the Department of State."

TransCanada is encouraged that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seems intent on following through with a decision by Dec. 31.

"We're respectful of that," Millar said. "We're glad they continue to follow the timeline they announced last spring and reiterated last Friday. That's the key piece for us."

Thus far, Keystone XL has been under review by U.S. authorities just shy of three years. December would mark 40 months. TransCanada's other similarly named heavy crude pipeline — known simply as Keystone — took 23 months to approve, Millar pointed out.

Last June, that pipeline began carrying heavy crude oil from Alberta's tar sands to its southern terminus in Cushing, Okla., and its eastern terminus in Patoka, Ill. It's phase one of an infrastructure TransCanada envisions will pump up to 900,000 barrels of heavy crude daily.

If built, Keystone XL's six-state U.S. portion would stretch 1,375 miles through Montana, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and directly to the oil refineries of Texas.

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.

Due to the international nature of Keystone XL, the State Department team is tasked with issuing a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to TransCanada’s request for a so-called presidential permit required to cross the U.S.-Canadian border. The Canadian National Energy Board approved its portion of the project in March 2010.

Greens Wary of State Department Schedule

Last Friday, the State Department announced via an afternoon teleconference that the team reviewing the Keystone XL is on schedule to release its final environmental evaluation in mid-August. Officials fielded more than 100,000 comments from the public before the June 6 deadline.

That short turnaround prompted watchdogs to ask if the document will be worth the paper it will be printed on.

"This is a foolhardy rush to judgment," Damon Moglen, climate and energy director at Friends of the Earth, wrote in an e-mail. "The State Department cannot possibly address the many glaring gaps in its environmental analysis in the next few weeks, let alone consider lessons from the worrying string of recent pipeline spills."

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