With the deadline for a decision on the massive Keystone XL pipeline facing the Obama administration, a bill tightening regulations on pipeline safety is racing through Congress with bipartisan support.
The Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act would beef up federal safety regulations and increase fines for faulty pipelines.
Supporters say the two are not linked, but the bill comes as the State Department and White House appear ready to give the green light to construction of the $7 billion Keystone project, despite protests from environmentalists and some residents and officials in states along the project's Canada-to-Texas pathway. While this pipeline safety bill wouldn't completely satisfy them, it might go a long way toward appeasing them and smoothing the waters.
"Keystone is important for energy security and bringing jobs to America," said a spokeswoman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "But we need to keep in mind as we do build these new pipelines that they offer adequate protections for both public health and the environment."
Officials in Nebraska, where the planned Keystone pipeline route cuts across a critical state aquifer, have been particularly skeptical of the project and are trying to have it rerouted.
Republican Gov. Dave Heineman called a special session of the state legislature Tuesday to consider a bill that would force TransCanada, the Canadian firm building the pipeline, to obtain a permit from the state. More bills are expected to strengthen landowner rights, among other things.
But TransCanada says the moves could be unconstitutional, saying approval is in the hands of the State Department and the federal government. The State Department declined to comment on the pipeline bill.
"The department has been committed to a thorough, transparent, and rigorous process. This has included engaging the American public, Congress, state governments and other stakeholders," a State Department statement said.
Environmentalists are not satisfied. They say the pipeline safety bill is the bare minimum Washington can do.
"I don't think this bill alone will make it safe," said Jane Kleeb of Bold Neb., which is protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. "But if it is going to come through, we need to make sure it's not only the safest pipeline built, but also that citizens, landowners, doctors and first-responders have all the information they need when the pipeline leaks, because it will leak."
She is pushing for the pipeline safety bill to include studies of tar sands oil - which the Keystone XL pipeline would be carrying - so they can better understand the health effects it will have on their communities and the best way to clean up spills.
"Right now, we essentially are flying blind," Ms. Kleeb said. "It's the wild, wild West here in Nebraska when it comes to tar sands oil. None of them know what the short- or long-term effects are."
Bill sponsors and energy industry trade groups, who support the safety bill, maintain it has nothing to do with Keystone. They say it comes as a result of other pipeline disasters around the country, including an accident that killed eight people in San Bruno, Calif.
"I think the whole Keystone thing is getting a little blown out of proportion," said Martin Edwards, vice president of legislative affairs at the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America. "This bill is focusing on the safety of pipelines. Period."
Still, the bill would apply to Keystone, and the project has come up in committee discussions.
The Senate passed the bill earlier this month by unanimous consent, and the House is working to merge two versions of a similar bill, one in the Energy and Commerce Committee and another in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Both committees expect to agree on one bill to send to the floor for a vote by the end of the month.
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