The controversial Keystone XL pipeline is still under final environmental review from the State Department, but that doesn’t mean conversations about it — or bills inspired by it — have stopped.
On Tuesday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing for a bipartisan bill that aims to speed up the permitting process for oil and natural gas pipelines that crosses country borders — like Keystone XL would — by taking the permitting authority out of the hands of the President and into the jurisdiction of other agencies.
Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) along with 15 other House cosponsors introduced H.R. 3301, the North American Energy Infrastructure Act, which would shorten the permitting process usually conducted by the State Department and approved or denied by the President to no longer than 120 days. Instead of the State Department, the process would be under the control of three agencies: the Secretary of Commerce for oil pipelines, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for natural gas pipelines and the Secretary of Energy for transmission facilities. The bill also would change the condition for whether or not projects should be approved from a question of whether the project is in the nation’s national interest to whether the project is soley in the nation’s national security interest — a condition that would make it so that all cross-border projects, if they aren’t a threat to national security, would be approved under the bill.
If the entire permitting process — including developing environmental reviews and getting citizen input — was reduced to 120 days, it would seriously undermine FERC’s ability to do its job, Jeff Wright, Director of the Office of Energy Projects at FERC said at a hearing on the bill Tuesday. Though Wright said 92 to 93 percent of proposed natural gas pipelines make it through the permitting process in one year, the 120-day period isn’t enough to allow for environmental impact reviews or for citizens to raise questions and concerns about the project.
“The premise of the Upton bill is that tar sands pipelines should be approved quickly with no environmental review,” Henry Waxman (D-CA) said at the hearing. “This should really be called the ‘Zombie Pipeline Act.’ Under this bill, even if the admin rejects KXL l because it’s not in public interest, KXL could rise from the dead and be rubber-stamped.”
Waxman cited the example of a proposed pipeline that would carry tar sands from Montreal, Quebec to Portland, Maine. That pipeline, though controversial among Maine residents, would almost certainly be approved under the new bill, Waxman said.
The bill’s hearing comes as the State Department looks to trains as a potential alternative — or supplement — to the Keystone XL pipeline, the southern leg of which is nearly complete. Rail is a more expensive way to ship tar sands oil than a pipeline, and it’s dangerous too, as the deadly explosion of a train carrying American crude oil through Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, illustrated this year. And shipping tar sands by rail only increases their greenhouse gas emissions — meaning using rail to ship Alberta’s tar sands along the route of the Keystone XL pipeline would only increase the project’s ability to significantly increase carbon pollution, the condition upon which President Obama indicated earlier this year that he would not approve the pipeline.