KEYSTONE XL:

GOP's newest strategy takes page from the Last Frontier

The incendiary national debate over Keystone XL tends to center on Nebraska, but energy-rich Alaska has become the muse for today's GOP push to build the 1,179-mile pipeline.

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee often point to the congressional fast-tracking of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline four decades ago as a historical template for their continued pursuit of legislation that would end the Obama administration's ongoing environmental review of the XL line, drawing parallels between the two mammoth energy infrastructure projects.

Even more recently, the 2004 legislation that carved a path for a natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the lower 48 states inspired a provision in H.R. 3 -- which is expected to pass today but then stall in the Senate. The provision would limit judicial review of court challenges to the $5.3 billion link between Canada's oil sands and Gulf Coast refineries.

"I'd love to say we were very creative, but we weren't," Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), chief sponsor of today's Keystone XL bill, quipped in an interview. Republican drafters modeled their new effort after the Alaska gas pipeline bill "to make sure it was language that had a precedent -- people had voted for it before," he added.

Terry said Energy and Commerce aides even "reached out to" Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who corralled lawmakers to support the Trans-Alaska Pipeline as he campaigned for his first full term in 1973.

As a result, this year's House Republican effort on Keystone XL differs in substance from previous iterations that looked to force President Obama into a quicker approval of a border-crossing permit for the pipeline and to shift authority over its route from the State Department to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The newest Terry bill would eliminate the requirement for a presidential thumbs-up, shift legal claims against the project to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and deem Keystone XL compliant with the Endangered Species Act as well as Clean Water Act permit requirements.

Previous Republican bills pushing through Keystone XL passed the House with support from dozens of Democrats, though it remains to be seen how many in Obama's party will back today's legislation with their next election more than a year away and the capital's attention diverted by a devastating Oklahoma tornado, a massive immigration bill and a brouhaha at the Internal Revenue Service.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) dismissed the pipeline bill yesterday as part of a sparse GOP agenda, telling reporters that it "won't go anywhere."

Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), a top lieutenant on Energy and Commerce Committee, predicted otherwise. North Dakota Sens. John Hoeven (R) and Heidi Heitkamp (D) are mounting a strong campaign for pro-pipeline legislation in the upper chamber, where a nonbinding budget vote to back Keystone passed in March with a symbolically significant 62 votes.

"A lot of senators who are going to be up for re-election next year, these are the kinds of votes they need to think about," Whitfield said yesterday in an interview.

Keystone XL would ship up to 830,000 barrels per day of crude to the Gulf Coast, all but about 12 percent of it coming from the carbon-rich Canadian oil sands region. Republicans, industry and a bloc of centrist Democrats view it as a valuable means to create jobs while weaning the United States off Middle Eastern oil imports, but many senior Democrats align with environmental groups in viewing the pipeline as a risky spur for increased greenhouse gas emissions.

The conservative Canadian government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper also has ratcheted up its campaign to win over lawmakers and the American public. Alberta Premier Alison Redford and other top officials have made increasingly frequent U.S. visits amid a high-profile advertising pitch for the energy security upside of oil sands development. Three Canadian envoys even hopped onto a media conference call yesterday held by environmental groups against the pipeline, according to sign-in records kept by the organizers.

Floor fights aplenty

Before final passage tomorrow, the House is poised to clash over many of the big-ticket controversies that have driven more than two years of national dialogue over Keystone XL.

Among the nine Democratic amendments approved yesterday by the House Rules Committee were a proposal from Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey that would require a presidential waiver to export fuel sent through the pipeline; a proposal from Rep. Henry Waxman of California to highlight the higher carbon footprint of oil sands crude; and a proposal from Reps. Judy Chu of California, Jared Polis of Colorado and Gerry Connolly of Virginia to seek a Government Accountability Office audit of potential cleanup costs stemming from a pipeline spill.

"We don't need this dirty oil," Waxman wrote yesterday in a letter urging fellow Democrats to oppose the bill. "Since Keystone XL was proposed in 2008, we have cut U.S. oil demand with new vehicle standards and have dramatically boosted less-carbon intensive U.S. oil production from shale deposits. In fact, much of the tar sands oil will not go to America, but will go through America and be exported overseas."

One amendment not sent to the floor, from Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), would have sought a U.S. EPA study of the impacts of petroleum coke, a coal-like byproduct of the extra refining process that must take place to turn heavy oil sands deposits into viable fuel. Petcoke, as it is known, is up to 10 percent more carbon-intensive than coal, and activists opposed to Keystone XL have charged the State Department with underestimating the climate impact of the pipeline by failing to consider its increased U.S. production if the pipeline is built.

Petcoke's profile grew this spring as the product's storage along the banks of the Detroit River began to raise alarms among residents and members of the Michigan delegation, led by Peters and Rep. John Conyers (D). The duo released a new letter to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality yesterday seeking more clarity as to how state regulators would ensure that the petcoke storage site's air and water emissions comply with federal environmental laws.

Conyers added yesterday that he is "putting together legislation" on the oil sands byproduct storage issue. "It's imperative that other communities join us and wake up before they wake up with their own pile of petcoke," he told reporters.

Oil industry representatives have countered the petcoke debate by noting that heavy crudes from Central and South America, where oil output is declining while Canada's increases, produce similar volumes of the byproduct.