Missoulian Editorial: Adjust, don’t cancel, plan: Keystone XL should go forward with expedited assessment, review

While many supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline project were worried that President Barack Obama’s decision to approve it or not would come only after much partisan wrangling and unnecessary delay, it turns out his decision was made prematurely instead.

The White House issued Obama’s announcement more than a month before the Feb. 21 deadline mandated in recent congressional legislation. Aware that the permit process was in danger of dragging on well past the November elections, House Republicans attached the deadline requirement to the payroll tax cut extension in order to force a decision on the issue before it became a political football. Unfortunately, the president’s decision ensured that the project will indeed be delayed – and will indeed remain an election issue.

A congressional effort is already under way to force the president to take another look at the current pipeline permit. This week, Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg announced that he signed on as a sponsor to H.R. 3811, the “Keystone For a Secure Tomorrow Act.” The act, introduced by Texas Congressman Ted Poe, would essentially approve the permit – but it’s a long shot given that the House and Senate remain politically divided, and that any bill that made it through Congress would only land back on Obama’s desk.

The Keystone project aims to link Canadian crude oil fields in Alberta to refineries in the Gulf Coast through a system of pipelines running through nine states. Two of the Keystone pipeline project’s four phases have been completed. Phase three would link a terminal in Cushing, Okla., to Houston and Port Arthur in Texas. Phase four would bring the pipeline through eastern Montana, including a major terminal at Baker.

TransCanada had planned to have the final phases of its $13 billion pipeline up and running by the end of next year.

It still has roughly 1,700 miles and $7 billion to go to complete the project.

In explaining his Jan. 18 decision, Obama said that the delay is needed in order to ensure an adequate assessment of the pipeline’s potential impacts. He was following the recommendation of the State Department, which stated that it had not had enough time to fully review the proposal.

TransCanada is now expected to apply for a new permit with an amended route – one that makes slight adjustments in order to skirt sensitive areas such as the Sandhills in Nebraska. Nebraska’s legislature has been working with TransCanada to adjust the pipeline route in order to resolve the state’s environmental concerns, and Nebraska’s Republican Gov. Dave Heineman – who helped block the project’s progress last fall – is now among those calling on Obama to approve the current permit. The vast majority of the route, after all, is not expected to change.

And certainly, support for the pipeline – especially in the states through which it would pass – is strong. All three of Montana’s congressional delegates are united in their support for the pipeline. And they have good reason to be. The national economy is still floundering and unemployment remains high in much of the country – including western Montana. In fact, there is ample evidence that Montana’s economy has stayed afloat primarily because of the eastern-side energy boom.

But the Treasure State can have its cake and eat it, too. We have vast natural resources – enough to set some aside for energy development, some for wilderness, some for recreation. We keep a steadier economic ship when we seek the balanced use of all our assets.

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