Republican lawmakers sound alarm over Obama's 'abrupt shift' on Keystone XL

Luiza Ch. Savage on a letter that raises interesting questions about the pipeline

The Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and two pro-pipeline members of the committee have sent a letter to President Obama with some interesting questions that have been raised by his recent remarks on the pipeline. They assert that the prolonged permit process has become an “embarrassment.” But beyond the usual heated rhetoric that has marked this polarizing issue, they seem to be striking a new note of alarm:

“We are concerned that your most recent statements have signaled an arbitrary and abrupt shift in how our nation approves cross-border projects,” wrote chairman Fred Upton, and members Ed Whitfield (R-Kentucky) and Lee Terry (R-Nebraska.)

Their letter also raises the possibility that the State Department, which many observers expect to wrap up its review by the end of 2013,  is still a year away from a final recommendation.

Beyond the rhetoric, the lawmakers raise interesting questions about how the president will apply the standard he announced in his June climate speech — that he will approve or deny the project based on its effect on carbon pollution: How will this be measured? Will he consider emissions from alternative transportation sources? At what point in the process will the analysis come in? And, perhaps most interesting, “Will this standard be applied to all cross-boundary transportation projects that presently need Presidential Permits?”

Their letter is here.

The president’s skeptical remarks this week about the pipeline and  jobs came as congressional Republicans are trying to decipher whether the administration is close to a final decision — and as they try to decide how far to push for the pipeline through congressional means.

Back in 2011, Republicans tried to force a speedy decision from the administration by legislating a 60-day deadline (stuck on to an unrelated payroll-tax-cut-extension bill). But the move backfired. The State Department responded by denying the original permit on the grounds that the deadline gave insufficient time to study a new pipeline route in Nebraska, where the state’s Republican governor requested that the pipeline go around sensitive water and land. They invited TransCanada to reapply.

Since then, there have been various attempts in the House to wrest the decision away from Obama. One Nebraska congressman, Lee Terry, has proposed legislation that would take away the president’s permit authority and hand it over to a the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. House Republicans have also passed legislation that would permit the pipeline without the president’s consent.

The challenge for the Republicans has been the Senate, where Democrats have a slim majority. A victory for Keystone advocates came in March when 62 senators voted on a non-binding resolution expressing support for the pipeline. But Republicans acknowledge that the Democrats who voted in favour would be unlikely to support Republican efforts to pass a bill that would limit the president’s authority on a final decision. And Senate majority leader Harry Reid controls what legislation can come to the floor for a vote. It’s too early to tell whether the 2014 mid-term elections would change the balance in the Senate. And in any case, the president still holds a veto.

Update to post: One pro-pipeline Democratic Senator, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, pressed Obama on Keystone XL at a meeting of Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill today. She has co-sponsored another non-binding resolution in favour of the pipeline — but it would not strip the president of his power over the permit.