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Bill Could Speed Up Permitting of Cross-National Pipelines

U.S. House members on Tuesday touted legislation, co-authored by U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, that would streamline the cross-border pipeline permitting process. But Federal Energy Regulatory Commission officials and environmental advocates have concerns.

U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston.

WASHINGTON — As proponents and opponents continue to await a final decision on the Keystone XL pipeline project, U.S. House energy committee members on Tuesday touted legislation that would streamline the cross-border pipeline permitting process. But the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which reviews the permits, and environmental advocates say the legislation would hurt more than it would help.  

The bill, authored by U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., would require the federal government to decide on cross-national oil and natural gas pipelines and electronic transmission projects within 120 days, unless there are national security problems. It also would eliminate the State Department’s review role and limit time for environmental study and public comment. 

"This bill would implement a fair and standardized rules process that everyone understands,” Green said. “[It] simply excludes … a permit from triggering a deeper review.”

Jeff Wright, director of the Office of Energy Projects at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said the bill would hinder the commission’s ability to meet its responsibilities.

“The proposed 120-day approval process would negate the ability of the commission to consider stakeholder concerns and severely curtail the commission’s ability to conduct a thorough analysis of a project involving border facilities, resulting in a decision whose sustainability is questionable,” Wright said. 

In Texas, the planned Keystone XL pipeline route stretches 485 miles from the Oklahoma border to southeast Texas. The pipeline would connect crude oil in Canada to refineries in the state. But U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, noted that Texans were still waiting for the oil to start flowing. 

“The people of Texas gave up their property so [the pipeline] could be accomplished … with the understanding that it would improve the overall economy of Texas because there would be so much more product that would be refined in the southern part of Texas,” Burgess said. “But the northern half pipeline has yet to be built so the product that was to come through the pipeline has not materialized. It’s almost as if these people had their property taken from them out of false pretenses.” 

Environmentalists say that extraction of the tar sands oil from Canada results in the release of more greenhouse gases than with regular oil. They have made stopping the pipeline a top priority.

Keystone XL pipeline approval has been pending for more than a year at the State Department, which is expected to release a final environmental review in the next few weeks. Generally, Wright said, about 92 percent of pipeline permits are approved within a year. 

At Tuesday’s hearing, House Republicans supported the bill as a way to increase efficiency and set a standard for cross-national pipelines, which could become a booming industry, they added. 

But environmentalists argue that the proposed elimination of a deeper review would gut the federal permit process.

“The Commerce Department would be forced to implement the pipelines unless it wasn’t in the national security interest to do so," Jim Murphy, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, said Monday in an interview. “By adding the word ‘security’ in the bill, they are trying to take out consideration of environmental harm.”  

The Tar Sands Blockade, an anti-Keystone XL pipeline group based in Houston, also rejects easing the permitting process. 

“[Pipelines] are already damaging our communities, so pipelines are an imminent threat, not a future threat," spokesman Ramsey Sprague said in an interview. "To curtail further participation on any front of this process curtails our ability to participate in the process, which is our right.”

The Medill News Service is a content partner of The Texas Tribune and is providing reports from Washington, D.C.

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