This week, Republicans in Congress have launched two different attempts to resurrect the delayed, and possibly dead, Keystone XL pipeline. One was clearly a public relations stunt, but the other could present a much more serious problem for pipeline opponents.
Early in the week, leading Republicans gathered to promote a bill by Indiana Senator Richard Lugar that would direct President Obama to act within sixty days on Keystone XL. The administration’s current policy is to push back action until early 2013 as alternate routes are studied, but the Republicans called for an immediate decision: “If the administration would simply get out of the way and let it go forward, it would create jobs almost immediately. Lots of jobs,” said Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. (This is not true, unless you have a very low bar for defining “lots.”)
Lugar’s bill has thirty-seven Republican co-sponsors, but isn’t really that dangerous—it won’t find enough Democratic support to pass the Senate. It’s really just a way to publicly whack Obama for delaying the project, not a viable attempt to get it going again.
But Representative Lee Terry, a Republican of Nebraska, has a much more serious plan. He announced today that he’s crafting a bill that would take the Keystone decision away from Obama’s State Department, and award it to the independent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The bill would also require FERC to issue a permit for the project within 30 days from receiving an application from TransCanada.
Terry’s bill wouldn’t pass the Senate either—that’s why he plans to attach it to the big payroll tax cut and unemployment extension bill that Congress is likely to pass at the end of this year. If Terry is successful, the House version of that crucial bill will contain a poison pill on Keystone XL.
This would be much more difficult for pipeline opponents to dislodge, though not impossible. But it’s also much more cavalier than Lugar’s bill, which would just force the State Department to act. Terry's plan to hand Keystone XL approval to FERC is a fundamental slap in the face to the regulatory process.
For one thing, requiring a federal regulator to approve a project undercuts the whole point of having regulators . Beyond that, FERC doesn’t even handle oil pipelines like Keystone XL but rather interstate natural gas pipelines and other energy transmission projects. FERC has not been involved in the Keystone process whatsoever—but Terry’s bill would require them to evaluate the project and issue a permit within thirty days.
I spoke with Mary O’Driscoll, FERC’s director of media relations, who would not comment on Terry’s bill specifically. But she did affirm that her agency has no experience handling projects like Keystone XL. “We don’t handle pipeline safety,” O’Driscoll said. “We have no jurisdiction.”
Anthony Swift, an attorney at the National Resources Defense Council, told me that Terry’s bill is “setting FERC up to fail when it comes to this process.” But the real goal, of course, is to get the project approved—and soon. Adherence to the appropriate regulatory structure is an afterthought, at best.