WASHINGTON — The Keystone XL oil pipeline would run from Canada to Texas, but one of its biggest champions is neither Canuck nor cowboy.
He's an urban congressman from the midsection of the United States.
Rep. Lee Terry has become the face of support for the controversial project in the House of Representatives.
He's made national television appearances talking up the pipeline and led press conferences about his legislation intended to force its approval.
On Saturday, he delivered the weekly Republican radio address, touting the pipeline's bipartisan support.
“Wherever there's Keystone, there's Lee Terry,” said Sen. Mike Johanns, a fellow Nebraska Republican. “Lee has carved out a real leadership role on this, trying to get it done, and it seems to me the ball is moving forward.”
Terry's efforts have earned him the praise of colleagues and pipeline supporters who see him striking a blow for job creation and energy independence.
Likewise, the work has garnered intense criticism from pipeline opponents who say he is doing the bidding of oil companies, working to ram through a dirty, dangerous export pipeline.
As the Omaha congressman describes it, his role in pushing the project stemmed from the intersection of his committee assignments and the fact that he's from Nebraska.
He first took up the Keystone cause during a 2011 brainstorming session of top Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Republicans had just won back the House, and the committee chairman, Rep. Fred Upton, asked members for suggestions on energy policy initiatives.
Terry told his colleagues about a little-known pipeline that was causing quite a stir back home and getting the environmental community all “bent out of shape.”
He shared newspaper articles on the topic, and his colleagues suggested he draft legislation supporting the pipeline.
First, however, they asked if he really wanted to take the lead, given the intensifying controversy back home.
“'I want this issue. I brought it up, I want it,'” Terry recalls telling them.
There was reason to be concerned. Even some prominent Republicans in the state were wary of backing the pipeline, given fears about the potential threat to the state's environmentally fragile Sand Hills and what a major spill might do to the Ogallala Aquifer.
Several other members of the Nebraska delegation adopted more of a wait-and-see approach as the U.S. State Department continued its process. Johanns actively opposed the pipeline, criticizing TransCanada for picking its original route through the Sand Hills. Even Republican Gov. Dave Heineman came to oppose the original path.
Heineman and Johanns supported the project after TransCanada agreed to change the route, under state and public pressure.
But Terry was gung-ho from the start. He said his advocacy was made easier by the first State Department studies that found little environmental risk from the project.
“When the environmental study backed me up, I went all in,” Terry said.
The House passed Terry's legislation to require a decision on the pipeline by Nov. 1, 2011, but the Senate ignored it. A similar deadline bill was included in end-of-2011 legislation that also extended the payroll tax cut, but the Obama administration simply rejected the pipeline and said it needed further review.
TransCanada submitted a new presidential permit application, which is pending. The State Department has released its latest environmental analysis, which again found that the project holds little environmental risk. A public hearing on that report has been scheduled for April 18 in Grand Island, Neb.
Terry said he has little faith the administration will act in a timely manner, and he has introduced new legislation to take the decision out of the president's hands and deem the project approved. It's expected to be approved by the House before Memorial Day.
Terry has repeatedly proposed such legislation, but nothing has reached the president's desk. Despite that, Johanns said Terry deserves credit for keeping the debate alive.
“It's an issue that could have disappeared,” Johanns said.
There is evidence that pipeline support is growing and that Democrats are getting as frustrated as Republicans with the delays. The Senate recently voted overwhelmingly in favor of the project, including 17 Democrats. Terry has lined up the support of many House Democrats.
At a recent press conference, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, touted his support for the pipeline and noted Terry's Cornhusker credentials.
“My colleague Mr. Terry, I trust, can vouch that the Nebraska issues have been resolved,” Matheson said.
Indeed, the fact that Terry represents a Nebraska district has been key to putting him in the spotlight.
The American Petroleum Institute praised Terry as the right man to champion the pipeline.
“He was a natural voice to say what Nebraskans' view on this project is,” said Khary Cauthen, the group's senior director of federal relations. “Congressman Terry is the home congressman. He is on the ground in Nebraska. Nebraskans are his constituents, so there's really no better voice for this project and the view in Nebraska.”
Not everyone in the state agrees. Jane Kleeb, executive director of Bold Nebraska, said Terry isn't listening to Nebraskans who object to the pipeline.
Opponents say that the State Department studies have been flawed and that the pipeline will endanger natural resources and trample landowner rights.
“Maybe if he spent less time chumming it up with oil lobbyists and more time visiting with landowners along the route and experts not tied to oil companies he would remember his conservative values of property rights and protecting our families,” Kleeb said.
She noted that Terry has taken campaign contributions from oil and gas interests that stand to benefit from the pipeline.
The Center for Responsive Politics shows Terry has received $292,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry over the course of his political career. That's no small sum, although it puts him in the middle of the pack among senior GOP members of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Ten other sectors rank ahead of oil and gas on his contributions list.
Terry's contributions from oil and gas donors did increase in the last election cycle, jumping from $48,350 for the 2010 election to $89,500 in the 2012 cycle. But Terry rejected suggestions that his motivation is tied to campaign contributions.
“It has absolutely nothing to do with my decision to push for Keystone,” Terry said.
What is certain is that the pipeline has become a signature issue for Terry.
“Almost everywhere I go now, people will ask me questions about it,” Terry said.
He said he's surprised at the profile the issue has attained.
“When I first brought this up, it was kind of this unique thing occurring in Nebraska,” Terry said. “I didn't envision that it would become a big national issue like it has.”
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