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By Lynn Garner
The House passed a bill May 22 approving the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, while the State Department said it plans to place online hundreds of thousands of comments on its draft supplemental environmental review for the project.
The House bill passed on a 241-175 vote that is largely symbolic. The bill is not expected to be taken up in the Democratic-controlled Senate. The White House issued a statement saying President Obama would veto the bill should it pass Congress.
Nineteen Democrats voted with Republicans for the bill. No Republicans voted against the measure, but one voted present.
The State Department decision represents a reversal of policy in the agency's four-and-a-half-year federal review process for the Keystone XL oil pipeline application.
“This is a new move for the State Department, part of an effort to maximize transparency,” a State Department spokeswoman told BNA.
The House debated and voted May 22 on 10 amendments to the bill, H.R. 3, the Northern Route Approval Act, introduced by Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.). The bill would eliminate the need for a presidential permit for the northern segment of the project--from the Alberta-Montana border to Nebraska, along a revised route through the state.
An amendment by Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas), approved 246-168, would add bill language highlighting the State Department's previous reviews concluding that any environmental impacts could be mitigated.
Lawmakers approved by voice vote one Democratic amendment, offered by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), that would require TransCanada Corp., the project sponsor, to submit its oil spill response plan, and any updates, to the governors of each state in which the pipeline operates.
Eight of the nine amendments offered by Democrats were defeated.
Among the rejections were proposals to require offsets for increased greenhouse gas emissions from Canadian oil sands production, to prohibit any exports of oil and refined products transported through the pipeline, and to require a study on the projected costs of cleanup activities in the event of pipeline spills and the impacts on public heath, the environment, and water quality.
“The agenda has been taken over by the left-wing extremists,” Terry said in floor debate, referring to the nationwide protests and rallies by the environmental community to TransCanada's plan to find an outlet for Canadian oil sands production by shipping up to 830,000 barrels per day of crude oil to Gulf Coast refineries.
A number of Democrats, including Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), said they supported the pipeline project but could not vote for the Republican-drafted bill because of provisions that would limit judicial review and weaken environmental and safety regulations.
Rahall, ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he could support a bill that simply set a deadline for a presidential permit to be granted, but he could not agree to doing away with the federal permitting process altogether for a project to be built by a foreign company.
A Democratic motion to recommit the bill to make oil sands petroleum, or bitumen, subject to fees to support the oil spill trust fund was defeated 194-223.
The House voted six times in the 112th Congress (July 26, 2011 to May 18, 2012) to approve the Keystone pipeline, including one stand-alone vote, four times as part of other measures, and one motion to instruct conferees on a transportation reauthorization bill, according to congressional staff.
Terry's latest bill was referred to three committees since its introduction March 15. The House Energy and Commerce Committee voted 30-18 on April 17 to approve the measure.
The House Natural Resources Committee approved the measure 24-17 on April 24. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the bill 33-24 on May 16.
A bipartisan bill (S. 582), introduced by Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.), March 14, is pending in the Senate. It would deem the project approved under the Constitution's commerce clause.
Hoeven has estimated there are 56 to 58 votes in the Senate in favor of the pipeline, but achieving 60 votes to overcome procedural hurdles will be difficult.
In other developments, the State Department has decided to place online the bulk of the 1.2 million comments received on the department's latest environmental review of the project, in response to requests for more access to the decisionmaking process.
The first tranche of more than 1.2 million public comments should be available May 23, according to a department spokeswoman. The first batch will consist of about 100,000 comments that will be available for review by the public on the website www.regulations.gov.
The decision to post the comments online is a first for the department in its four-and-a-half year review of the TransCanada Corp. project.
The department plans to make subsequent postings on a weekly basis and in approximate order of when the comments were received.
The department received an unprecedented number of comments to a draft supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS), released March 1, that concluded there were no environmental impacts that could not be mitigated.
The department's review drew hundreds of thousands of comments from private citizens, nongovernmental organizations, Native American tribes, state and federal agencies, elected officials, and other interested parties. Many were form letters.
“The State Department is diligently and efficiently evaluating these comments to ensure that this input is taken into consideration as we prepare the final SEIS,” the spokeswoman said. “All comments will be posted prior to completion of the final SEIS.”
The department has not said when it will release the final environmental review, but it is likely to be several more weeks. The job was made harder by analysis from the Environmental Protection Agency citing deficiencies in the State Department draft (44 ER 1221, 4/26/13).
The entire federal review process could take until November if the administration chooses to use all of the time available at its discretion.
By Lynn Garner
The text of H.R. 3, the Northern Route Approval Act, is available at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-113hr3rh/pdf/BILLS-113hr3rh.pdf.
President Obama's veto threat is available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/legislative/sap/113/saphr3r_20130521.pdf.
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