WASHINGTON - As Republicans rush to join the Trump administration's efforts to boost oil and gas production, the House pushed two measures on Wednesday aimed at easing the permitting process for pipelines that cross state and international lines.
Lawmakers voted, 254-175, to pass a bill by Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., which would transfer authority to issue permits for pipelines and power transmission lines that cross international borders from the State Department to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Mullin and other Republicans argued the measure is necessary to keep politics out of the pipeline permitting process.
Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., voted in favor of the bill.
The House also voted, 248-179, to pass legislation that sponsor Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, said would promote better coordination of pipeline permitting between federal and state authorities, even as Democrats warned that the measure would undermine important environmental safeguards in the process.
Throughout floor debate on Wednesday, Democrats cast the measures as reckless Republican attempts to short circuit crucial environmental and safety review processes in favor of industry.
But Mullin, citing the delay and eventual rejection in 2015 of the Keystone XL Pipeline by the Obama administration, said his bill seeks to prevent similar bottlenecks and provide certainty for such projects.
"We hear a lot of stuff about it damaging the environment. It doesn't," Mullin said of his measure. "We're talking about crossing a border and taking a situation that was held up for eight years, with the Keystone Pipeline, and making sure it has a transparent and consistent approach on how we regulate these permits."
Pipelines that flow across U.S. national borders require a presidential permit issued by the State Department. Keystone eventually got a new lease on life earlier this year when the Trump administration granted it the previously denied permit, to the chagrin of many Democrats and environmental groups that had rallied against the project.
Lawmakers rejected, 182-246, an amendment to Mullin's bill by Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., that would have maintained the State Department as the agency in charge of issuing cross-border pipeline permits. Engel said it makes sense that the State Department continues to review and authorize cross-border permits because FERC is not equipped to handle issues of diplomacy and security along international borders.
"It doesn't make any sense to me ... it seems quite arbitrary and quite foolish and moving in the wrong direction," Engel said.
Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-N.Y., warned that Mullin's bill would narrow environmental reviews for international pipelines to just the cross-border segment.
"So inside of the United States, anything goes," Slaughter said.
Still Republicans voted to pass the bill, arguing it is important for boosting the country's energy production, providing certainty for pipeline companies and eliminating bureaucratic hurdles.
Flores' measure also had its share of Democratic opposition. According to the sponsor, the measure would "promote better coordination among FERC and other agencies involved in siting interstate natural gas pipelines."
The bill would require state permitting authorities to conduct their environmental and safety reviews concurrently with the federal government as a way to issue quicker decisions.
Flores argued that despite the country's natural gas abundance, some states pay higher energy prices because "some state and federal agencies are failing to make timely decisions" on the necessary pipeline permits to deliver it to consumers.
"We can and we should modernize our pipeline infrastructure to match our abundant natural gas resources," Flores said on the House floor.
Eminent domain Democrats said they feared the measure would lower the bar for allowing companies to seize private property. An amendment by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., that would have made it harder for companies to use eminent domain laws to seize private land for pipelines was rejected, 189-239.
Bill supporters said it does not change eminent domain laws and that Democrats were using such amendments to obstruct the bill.
Supporters of the Flores bill, such as Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said that domestic energy development suffered during the last eight years under former President Barack Obama, and the measure would remove the bureaucracies that delay projects.
"Unfortunately the permitting process for new pipelines is arduous and unnecessarily burdensome," she said, adding that it takes more than 500 days to approve interstate pipeline permits.
Republicans also voted, 180-249, to reject an amendment by Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., to prohibit FERC from issuing a permit for an oil or natural gas pipeline project if any part of the project is on lands managed by federal or local authorities for natural resource conservation or recreation.
Democrats also expressed concern about a provision in the Flores measure allowing for the issuance of conditional permits based on aerial data.
"Aerial data have limitations and can be insufficient ... the data may not account for historic sites, endangered species or wetlands," Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., said. "This will ultimately not speed up the process, but what it does is circumvent the rights of land owners. We should be more thoughtful about changing this process given the implications that will impact private land owners' rights."
The American Petroleum Institute lauded the passage of both bills, calling them "an important step in strengthening our nation's energy infrastructure and creating U.S. jobs across the country."