Leahy Votes No On Bill Linking Keystone Tar Sands Project To Americans' Payroll Tax Rates

(The U.S. Senate Saturday approved a bill that includes fast-tracking the controversial KeystoneXL tar sands oil pipeline to an extension of the payroll tax cut.  Leahy has long been a leading opponent of the Keystone project and has strongly supported the payroll tax cut extension but objects to holding Americans' tax rates hostage to the tar sands project and to House leaders' insistence on linking them in this bill.  Leahy's statement today on the bill follows.)


Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy

December 17, 2011

Senate Floor


The Keystone XL

Tar Sands

Oil Pipeline

Mr. LEAHY.  Mr. President, we are close to voting on a payroll tax extension bill that includes a House provision designed to force the President to approve the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline.  Proponents of this tar sands project argue that it belongs on this bill for one reason:  building the pipeline would create jobs.

Any construction project creates jobs, and it is no surprise that this debate has come down to this.  Unable to sell the pipeline as necessary to meet the country’s energy needs, which it is not, or to refute charges that tar sands strip mining and the refining and burning of high carbon oil cause egregious harm to the environment and health, which it does, the Canadian energy company, TransCanada, has flooded the media with dire warnings about the American jobs that will be lost if the pipeline is rejected. 

Not surprisingly, our Republican friends, always ready to fight for the oil companies, have echoed these scare tactics. 

What they don’t tell you is that the 5,000 or 6,000 temporary construction jobs will disappear once the pipeline is built.  Only a few hundred permanent jobs are needed to operate and maintain the pipeline.

And they also don’t mention that the choice is not between jobs or no jobs.  They ignore the tens of thousands of permanent, safe American jobs that could be created by investing in clean, renewable sources of energy, which unlike tar sands oil don’t pollute and will not be used up in a few short decades.  

People can disagree about building the Keystone pipeline.  But there is more to this than the short term jobs it would create.  Jamming it through Congress on this bill in the waning hours of the session has a lot more to do with politics than jobs. 

The Keystone provision in this payroll tax extension would force the President to make a decision to approve or disapprove the pipeline within 60 days.  Any decision to grant a permit would be “deemed”, by Congress, to satisfy all the environmental requirements, even if it does not, and any modification to the construction mitigation and reclamation plan “shall not” require supplementation of the final environmental impact statement.  In other words, don’t study the consequences or give the public a chance to comment on the revised plan. 

This is from Members of Congress who in the last election ran on a platform of “open” government.  Yet when it comes to helping big oil, it is a different story.  They cut the time for making a decision from a year to 60 days, and short circuit the environmental review process.  Forget the science.  Forget the public.  Preempt the law.  Ignore the risk.  The only thing that matters is pumping more oil.  

Tar sands are a particularly dirty source of petroleum, from extraction to refinement.  Anyone who is interested, regardless of which side of this debate they are on, should look at the photographs of the tar sands mines in the boreal forests of Alberta.  What was once an extraordinarily beautiful landscape has been ravaged by heavy machinery, vast ponds filled with polluted water and sludge, and a ruined wasteland where the forests used to be.

We all know that the extraction of oil, minerals, and other natural resources harms the environment.  But there are degrees of harm.  Extracting heavy oil from tar sands is among the most energy intensive and destructive. 

Under the law, the State Department has the responsibility to approve or disapprove the pipeline because it crosses an international boundary.  More than a year ago, I and ten other Senators – Republicans and Democrats – sent the first of a series of letters to the State Department raising concerns about the proposed pipeline and the impact of tar sands oil on global warming.

Since then, concern about the pipeline has evolved into a heated controversy over the impact the pipeline will have on our Nation’s energy policy, our continuing dependence on fossil fuels, and the environment.

From the beginning, I had misgivings about the State Department’s ability to conduct a thorough, credible assessment of a project of this complexity that they were approaching with an attitude of inevitability.  The State Department did not anticipate the strong reaction of Members of Congress of both parties, including several from Midwestern states that have been coping with multiple oil spills from the original Keystone pipeline – oil spills that have caused damage costing hundreds of millions of dollars that company officials have treated as inconsequential.   

Concerns about the risks of this project have united not only those living along the proposed route, but people across the Nation, including in Vermont, as well as in Canada, who care about the environment and who understand the need to wean our Nation from oil and other fossil fuels.

Every President since the 1970s has spoken of the need to reduce our dependence on oil and coal.  But despite all the speeches, year after year we are more dependent on these finite, polluting sources of energy than ever before.

Today, energy companies are spending staggering amounts of money in search of new sources of oil in some of the most inhospitable places on Earth, where its extraction involves great risks to the workers involved, to the environment, and to precious sources of water for drinking and irrigation.

No matter what we do today, later this week, or later this month, this country will be dependent on fossil fuels for many years to come.  But while TransCanada and its supporters extol the virtues of the Keystone XL pipeline, as the Minority Leader and other have done, simply by reducing waste we could eliminate entirely the need for the energy from the oil that would flow through the pipeline.  It is one of those inconvenient facts they would prefer to ignore.

I come from a state that shares a border with Canada.  My wife’s family is Canadian.  I have a great fondness for that “giant to the north.”  But this issue is not about United States relations with Canada.  We are inseparable neighbors, friends, and allies.  There are strong views about this pipeline, pro and con, in both countries.  As Americans, we have to do what is right for our country’s energy future, for the environment, for our citizens.

Some have argued that if this pipeline is not built, TransCanada will simply build another pipeline to the coast of British Columbia and export the oil to China.  But there are significant obstacles and no indication that such an alternative route is a viable option. 

Others maintain that the carbon emissions from extracting and refining this oil would not appreciably exceed those from oil shipped by tanker from the Middle East, but they do not address the environmental harm and pollution caused by the strip mining and separation process.

Then there is the jobs issue, which has been shamelessly exaggerated in a last ditch attempt to win votes in a time of economic hardship.

Last month, in response to concerns about the crucial aquifer that the pipeline would traverse in the Midwest, the White House announced that the State Department would consider alternative routes through Nebraska and that the President would make a decision in 2013.  Now, Republican defenders of the oil industry want to short circuit this process, whatever the risks.

Fossil fuels are finite, inefficient, and dirty.  The cost we pay at the gas pump bears no resemblance to the long-term environmental and health costs borne by society as a whole. 

We cannot lessen our reliance on fossil fuels by continually ignoring it.

Nor can we do it by spending huge amounts of money, energy, and American ingenuity to search the farthest reaches of the globe for every last drop of oil, regardless of how dangerous or harmful to the environment.

This pipeline would perpetuate a costly dependence that has gotten worse year after year, for which we are all to blame.  Keystone XL would once again do nothing to address the problems associated with fossil fuels.  It would virtually assure more oil spills, it would do nothing to promote conservation and reduce waste, and it would do nothing to spur investment in clean energy alternatives. 

Most importantly, it would provide yet another excuse to once again postpone for another day the urgent, national security imperative of developing a sustainable energy policy for this country. 

That is what the decision about the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline has come to represent regardless of what route it takes.

Mr. President, sometimes a bad situation can be the beginning of something better.  Once this bill is passed, President Obama will have 60 days to decide if building the pipeline is in the national interest.  He should reject these strong arm tactics by the other party.  He should use this blatantly political maneuver as an opportunity to inaugurate a new energy policy that will finally end our dependency on foreign oil.  It is time to finally put the environment, and the health and energy security of the American people, above the interests of the fossil fuel industry.

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