March 7, 2013 / 10:17 PM / 6 years ago

US lawmakers draft bill to speed decision on Keystone pipeline

* Draft bill would end need for presidential permit

* Bill backed by two House Democrats, GOP energy leaders

* Senator looking for vehicle for similar bill

By Ayesha Rascoe

WASHINGTON, March 7 (Reuters) - Proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline in the House of Representatives on Thursday outlined a new push to take the decision on the project out of the hands of the Obama Administration and to limit further legal and regulatory delays.

Congressman Lee Terry, Republican from Nebraska, authored draft legislation that would eliminate the need for a presidential permit for the northern section of the pipeline, which would transport Canadian oil sands crude into the United States.

The State Department has been weighing TransCanada’s application for a permit for the 800,000 barrel-per-day pipeline for more than four years, repeatedly delaying the process as environmentalists raised concerns about potential spills from the pipeline and its impact on climate change.

The presidential permit is currently necessary because the pipeline would cross the U.S.-Canadian border.

“If we see further delays as we have in the past; Congress is ready to act,” Terry said in a statement. “This discussion draft is part of that process.”

Democrats Jim Matheson, of Utah, and John Barrow, of Georgia, joined Terry in backing the draft bill. The Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Fred Upton, also backed the bill, as well as energy subcommittee chairman Ed Whitfield.

Lawmakers in Congress, led by Republicans, have continually tried to force the approval of Keystone, which they argue would create thousands of jobs and shore up U.S. energy security.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has voted six times in favor of moving the pipeline forward, but these efforts have ultimately not succeeded with Democrats controlling the Senate and the White House.

In the Senate, John Hoeven, a Republican from North Dakota, is looking for ways to attach similar legislation to a must-pass bill. In January, Hoeven sent a letter to President Barack Obama signed by 53 senators, including nine Democrats, urging him to approve the pipeline.

Hoeven said then that if Obama did not move forward on the line by April he would reintroduce the legislation.

Last year Hoeven introduced a measure in the Senate to give Congress the power to approve Keystone. It got 56 votes, four fewer than needed to pass.

The Keystone pipeline cleared a key hurdle last week, when the State Department issued a new environmental assessment finding that the project would not add significantly to carbon-intensive oil sands production.

One of the main arguments environmentalists have made against the pipeline is that it would greatly accelerate oil sands development, exacerbating climate change.

Still, critics of the pipeline plan to push to further delay the review process and the project will likely face legal challenges even if approved.

Terry’s draft proposal would create a 60-day deadline for filing a claim against the pipeline and limit the lawsuits that could be brought against it.

The proposal would also deem that the project has met the requirements of the Endangered Species Act regarding a protected beetle that would be affected by the pipeline and it grants other necessary federal permits.

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