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Native Sun News: Rider forces Keystone XL Pipeline decision

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman. All content © Native Sun News.

On Dec. 17, both houses of Congress passed a legislative rider to expedite a decision on TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline project. The rider, which was unceremoniously attached to the two-month payroll tax-cut extension for middle class Americans, allots a 60-day deadline for final review of the project by the U.S. State Department. PHOTO COURTESY/NEBRASKA.WATCHDOG.ORG

WASHINGTON, DC -- The U.S. State Department warned on Dec. 12 that legislative pressure on the White House to speed up the decision on permitting TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL Pipeline would sound the death knell for the tar-sand crude-oil project. However, pipeline backers in both chambers of Congress voted in favor of forcing the administration’s hand anyway.

On Dec. 17, the U.S. Senate voted 89-10 for a payroll tax-cut bill that included a rider to fast-track the unrelated decision on the pipeline. The House of Representatives voted 234-193 for a similar bill and rider on Dec. 13.

On the eve of the House bill’s passage, the State Department had warned: “Should Congress impose an arbitrary deadline for the permit decision, its actions would not only compromise the process, it would prohibit the department from acting consistently with National Environmental Policy Act requirements by not allowing sufficient time for the development of this information.

“In the absence of properly completing the process, the department would be unable to make a determination to issue a permit for this project.” said the Office of the Spokesperson for the State Department.

Both congressional chambers’ bills called for a decision within 60 days and were attached to bills on middle-class tax-relief that Obama wants to see extended. South Dakota’s two senators and one representative are on record as supporting the Keystone XL Pipeline project, with only Sen. Tim Johnson criticizing the act of saddling legislation with unrelated riders.

The votes came one week after U.S. President Barack Obama’s Dec. 10 declaration of support for the State Department announcement on delaying decision-making until 2013 in the interest of the 4-year-old corporate application for a Presidential Permit on the $7-billion private enterprise.

Obama had met three days earlier on Dec. 7, with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper for their second White House parley addressing the subject.

“We did discuss the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which is very important to Canada,” Obama said in a news release. “And I think the Prime Minister and our Canadian friends understand that it's important for us to make sure that all the questions regarding the project are properly understood, especially its impact on our environment and the health and safety of the American people,” he added. “And I assured him that we will have a very rigorous process to work through that issue.”

Early this year, the State Department had pledged a decision by the end of 2011 on the application. However, the year was marked by a groundswell of opposition from Indian country, farmers, ranchers, and boosters of renewable energy alternatives.

The Keystone XL would cross Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. TransCanada built another tar-sands crude-oil pipeline from Alberta through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri and Illinois a year ago when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton succeeded in winning a motion to dismiss four Northern Plains tribal governments’ federal lawsuit to stop it for violating historic preservation, trust and treaty laws.

The proposal for the second pipeline is the target of the Mother Earth Accord, initiated by U.S. and Canadian indigenous constituents and submitted to the State Department and the White House in opposition to the oil company proposal.

The department is in the process of obtaining information regarding alternate routes that steer clear of the Sand Hills in Nebraska, after the state government responded to citizens’ concerns about sensitive habitat and the Ogallala water table there. The department has not revised its timeline.

“Based on preliminary consultations with the State of Nebraska and the permit applicant, the department believes the review process could be completed in time for a decision to be made in the first quarter 2013,” the spokesperson reiterated.

TransCanada Corp., based in Calgary, Alberta, has offered the possibility of up to 20,000 pipeline construction jobs as a boon for the United States’ economy. The State Department’s analysis, however, concludes the project would create 6,000 at most, all of which would be temporary.

An evaluation by Cornell University's Global Labor Institute says the project would require 2,500 to 4,650 construction workers, with less than 15-percent of them local hires.

“The real jobs in the region come from the ranches and farms, more than a quarter of a million of them in the Great Plains states the pipeline would pass through,” said filmmaker Robert Redford, a campaigner for renewable energy.

“Why would we put these fertile croplands, and the wheat, corn, and cattle they produce, at risk for the profits of the oil industry?” he said.

The bills fail to protect the rights of property owners along the route, “and they don’t ensure that the pipeline won’t endanger water supplies,” said Patrick Sweeney, director of the Western Organization of Resource Councils. The non-profit based in Montana is a regional network of state grassroots organizations dedicated to change on the environment and family agriculture.

The Ogallala Aquifer provides drinking water for millions of people, Sweeney noted, stating, “While the Administration and Nebraska state agencies are looking at a new route around the Ogallala, federal and state agencies along the pipeline route should make sure that TransCanada: stops threatening landowners with eminent domain until they have all required permits in place and it has been determined that the pipeline is needed; prepares a complete Emergency Response Plan, developed with public input, and files it with all affected counties, municipalities, and emergency responders before construction begins; is required to treat all areas of the route as “High Consequence Areas,” and uses thicker, safer pipe along the entire route; prepares a complete plan for abandonment of the pipeline, including removing pipeline infrastructure when the pipeline is abandoned.

“None of these things have been done. Forcing a hasty decision will only ensure that they never get done,” Sweeney said.

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the international program at the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council, responded to the Senate vote, saying, “The Republican stampede to build the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline is going to backfire. In forcing President Obama to reach a hasty decision – which he has said he would not do – the president will have no choice but to reject the pipeline as not in the national interest.”

(Talli Nauman is Health and Environment Editor for Native Sun News. Contact her at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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