Despite environmental opposition, the Obama administration has approved a controversial oil-sands pipeline.
No, not the Keystone XL pipeline that Washington has been fighting over for months. More than two years ago, on Aug. 20, 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton approved a 1,000-mile pipeline that has the capacity to send 800,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada’s oil sands to Wisconsin. That pipeline is owned by the Canadian company Enbridge and began operating in October 2010.
Sound familiar? The Keystone XL pipeline, as proposed by another Canadian company, TransCanada, would send up to 700,000 barrels of oil a day 1,700 miles from Hardisty, Alberta—the same town where the Enbridge pipeline known as the Alberta Clipper originates—to U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast.
“It speaks to the fact that the Keystone XL debate has been infused with presidential politics, partisan politics, and has not had enough to do with the discussion of how do we truly become energy self-reliant,” said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Udall, like several senators approached by National Journal Daily on Thursday, didn’t know about the Clipper oil-sands pipeline before being prompted about it.
“I think there is a legitimate argument that it’s in the national interest to build the pipeline,” said Udall, adding that it’s important that the administration work with Nebraska to find the right route before approving the Keystone project. President Obama rejected a permit for Keystone XL last month, arguing that the 60-day deadline for a decision imposed by congressional Republicans did not allow enough time to study alternate routes around a sensitive ecosystem in Nebraska.
“The same administration approved that one?” said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who also didn’t know that the Obama administration had backed the Enbridge project. “Then why aren’t they approving this one? I don’t know.”
The House Energy and Commerce Committee plans a hearing on Friday to hear testimony from administration officials and other stakeholders involved in the Keystone XL pipeline review process. The hearing probably won’t advance the debate much because Congress is gridlocked over how to respond to Obama’s decision.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., who also didn’t know about the Clipper pipeline, said on Thursday that “the issue on this one largely is Nebraska.”
Lobbyists and other experts following the Keystone debate argue, however, that most of the environmental opposition to Keystone is not really about Nebraska; in fact, numerous pipelines already cross all parts of the state, including environmentally sensitive areas. Environmentalists are primarily concerned about the effect that producing oil from the carbon-rich tar sands could have on climate change and how the pipeline project fits with America’s commitment to clean energy.
“There was a focused campaign around Clipper,” said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s International Program, who worked against the Enbridge pipeline too. “What we see now with Keystone XL is that concerns and awareness about tar-sands expansion and pipelines have grown exponentially in the United States.”
On the other side of the fight, proponents of Keystone say that politics has turned what is normally a routine approval process on its head.
“A lot of folks in the industry have been amused by the fact that the Clipper project went through without much fanfare but that Keystone XL has generated an ‘all hands on deck from liberal Hollywood’ moment,” said Stephen Brown, a top lobbyist for the refiner Tesoro. “I think the disconnect just underscores how the Keystone pipeline has been hijacked by the politics of the time rather than decided on the merits of the project itself.”
When Clinton approved the Clipper permit, she outlined the national-security, economic, and environmental reasons why the administration supported the pipeline.
The State Department said at the time that the Clipper pipeline would increase “the diversity of available supplies among the United States’ worldwide crude-oil sources in a time of considerable political tension in other major oil-producing countries and regions.”
On the economic benefits, the State Department said that approval of the pipeline would send “a positive economic signal, in a difficult economic period, about the future reliability and availability of a portion of United States’ energy imports, and in the immediate term, this shovel-ready project will provide construction jobs for workers in the United States.”
These are the same arguments that proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline, led by congressional Republicans, cite as reason to approve that project without delay.
Olga Belogolova contributed contributed to this article.