Republicans Aim to Take Keystone XL Decision out of Obama’s Hands

May 22, 2013 Updated: May 23, 2013

WASHINGTON—The American political brawl over the approval of TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline shifted into overdrive on Wednesday as Republicans in the House of Representatives made yet another attempt to take the decision out of U.S. President Barack Obama’s hands.

The Northern Route Approval Act, expected to pass the House easily, would allow for a congressional green light of the pipeline and nix the need for a presidential permit. It faces a far less certain future in the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate.

As legislators debated the bill, their arguments fell along largely partisan lines. Republicans touted the jobs and energy independence that Keystone XL would purportedly spur, while Democrats warned the pipeline poses grave risks to the environment and argued that job creation claims are exaggerated.

One pro-pipeline Democrat—Nick Rahall of West Virginia—said that while he supports Keystone XL, he cannot back a bill that attempts to do away with the permit process.

“Waiving permits for a foreign company? We don’t even do that for domestic companies,” he said on the House floor. “This bill’s a mockery.”

Legislators approved a rule that governs floor consideration of the bill, setting up a House vote to pass it. Nine Democrats are expected to be among those who will vote in favour of the legislation.

The White House has threatened to veto the bill, saying it “seeks to circumvent long-standing and proven processes for determining whether cross-border pipelines are in the national interest.”

Democrats in the House are attempting to trip up the bill by way of a handful of amendments, including one that would require any oil and refined product that is transported via Keystone XL to stay in the United States.

Democrats have argued for years that rather than make the U.S. less dependent on oil from hostile OPEC regimes, Keystone XL will allow carbon-intensive Alberta oilsands bitumen to be exported abroad from the Gulf Coast.

Another Democratic amendment would require Calgary-based TransCanada to disclose its campaign contributions for the past five years before construction of the $7 billion Keystone XL proceeds.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has nearly doubled its spending on the promotion of Keystone XL, to $16.5 million from $9 million a year ago.

Its beefed-up efforts included Harper’s visit to New York last week to pitch the pipeline to the Council on Foreign Relations and in roundtables with U.S. business leaders.

Obama rejected the pipeline early last year, but invited TransCanada to file a new application with an altered route that would skirt Nebraska’s ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region.

TransCanada did so, earning the thumbs up from the state of Nebraska and a draft environmental assessment from the State Department that suggested it posed minimal environmental risks. The State Department is analyzing the pipeline because it crosses an international border.

The powerful Environmental Protection Agency, meantime, has rebuked State’s environmental analysis, saying it’s mistakenly concluded that oilsands bitumen would find buyers with or without the pipeline, most likely via rail lines.

The State Department is now reviewing all public comments, including the input from the EPA, before finalizing its draft report. Ninety days after that report, State officials will then determine whether Keystone XL is in the national interest of the United States.

After that, it will be up to Obama to either block or bless the pipeline.

With files from The Canadian Press