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WASHINGTON — The Keystone XL pipeline is poised to once again play a starring role in major battles over federal spending.
House Republicans on Wednesday announced plans to tie the politically contentious project to the formal approval of an increase in the debt ceiling — the limit on what the U.S. government can borrow to pay for spending already approved by Congress and the president — that is expected to be reached sometime next month, unless action is taken.
Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., who has championed the pipeline, appeared with House GOP leaders to unveil the strategy of using Keystone XL as a bargaining chip in the coming high-stakes fiscal showdown.
The Omahan said at the press conference that Obama administration officials talk about the need to invest in infrastructure projects to create jobs. “But yet there's been one infrastructure project that has, because of political reasons, been ignored,” Terry said.
Terry said that early in his presidency Obama signed off on a different pipeline — the Alberta Clipper — that carries oil sands across the U.S.-Canada border.
“So the president didn't have a problem with the Alberta Clipper pipeline delivering oil into the United States and crossing the border until it became an environmental issue on the Keystone pipeline,” Terry said.
Supporters say the pipeline has languished in regulatory limbo for far too long. Terry noted that today marks the fifth anniversary of TransCanada's filing its permit application for the project, which would transport more than 800,000 barrels of crude a day from the tar-sands oil area of Canada to refineries in Texas. They point to State Department studies that have found the project poses little environmental risk and talk up its potential for job creation and energy independence.
Opponents say those studies are fundamentally flawed. They say the pipeline would increase the greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for dramatic climate change and would pose a risk of spills that would foul the water and land it crosses. They also say that the jobs figures have been overstated and that much of the oil will simply be exported overseas.
Environmental groups have expressed concerns about the pipeline's impact on wildlife. Specifically, Nebraska Trout Unlimited has expressed concern about the project's potential impact on fish habitats in the state.
Asked about those concerns recently, Dan Ashe, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told reporters that the real question behind the pipeline lies with its impact on climate change.
“When you separate the pipeline from that big issue, it's a pipeline,” Ashe said.
His agency regularly reviews pipelines for their impact on threatened and endangered species. “The Keystone pipeline proposal is really rather un-magnificent from that standpoint,” Ashe said.
As chairman of a subcommittee that deals with manufacturing, Terry is holding a hearing today intended to highlight what supporters say are the pipeline's many benefits.
There will be plenty of Nebraska faces at the hearing. Terry tapped two to testify for his side — labor leader Ron Kaminski and Dennis Houston, head of the Norfolk Area Chamber of Commerce.
Democrats responded by calling on anti-pipeline activist Jane Kleeb to appear as a witness for the opposition. She heads the environmental advocacy group Bold Nebraska, which has been fighting the pipeline.
House Republicans have voted several times in the past in favor of Keystone XL, but most of those measures have failed to clear the 60-vote threshold required in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats.
The one exception was a provision that simply required the Obama administration to make a decision. The administration responded by rejecting it, saying there were unfinished reviews, but allowed TransCanada to file a new permit application.
Republicans said they also hope to tie tax overhaul proposals and a delay in the new health care law to the debt ceiling vote, which could come as early as next week.
Terry said the Keystone XL is a major issue among his colleagues and could make it easier to win approval for any deals struck with the Democrats. Certainly, he said, it would make him more likely to support a plan.
Asked about priorities, he said that doing something to change the health care law is the biggest concern among House Republicans. He said the economic benefits of the pipeline are much smaller than the negative effects of the health care law.
“Many of us really believe that this is what's going to bankrupt the United States,” he said. “So Obamacare is worthy of throwing yourself on the sword.”