WASHINGTON -- The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing Thursday to consider whether approval of Keystone XL, the proposed 1,660-mile pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to Texas, is in the national interest of the United States.
The State Department released its final environmental impact statement (FEIS) on Keystone in January, moving the decision on the pipeline into the hands of Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama. The administration is expected to make a national-interest determination in the coming months, possibly as soon as late May.
The Senate hearing produced few new insights, instead rehashing much of the political debate over Keystone that has dragged on for years now. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said he felt the case for building the pipeline "is clear and compelling." Democrats on the committee mostly expressed opinions opposing the pipeline.
The pro-Keystone panelists testifying before the committee set up the national-interest question as one of energy security.
"Our neighbors to the north and south are also blessed with energy abundance. North America can and should become an energy hub," said retired Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones, who is now president of the Jones Group International. Jones has also served as president of the Institute for 21st Century Energy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and as an adviser to President Obama on national security, and he is a paid adviser to both the chamber and the American Petroleum Institute, which support the pipeline.
Jones described the Keystone approval decision as "a litmus test of whether the United States is serious about national and energy security." He later argued that "Canada's oil sands will continue to be developed if the Keystone XL is not approved."
Karen Harbert, the current president and CEO of the Institute for 21st Century Energy, testified as well. "Energy vulnerability equals geopolitical vulnerability," said Harbert. She argued that the question is whether the U.S. will get oil from Canada "or places far away that don't share our democratic values and principles."
"I don’t think we have to fear the Canadian Mounties coming and circling," Harbert said, referencing the threats to energy supplies that Russia has been making against Ukraine.
The panel also featured climate scientist James Hansen, the former director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies turned full-time climate change activist. Hansen, who has been arrested at a protest against Keystone, called tar sands oil, the kind that would flow through the pipeline, "the dirtiest fuel on earth" and argued that Keystone would drive further development of Alberta's tar sands.
"It makes no sense to set up a system to exploit them in a major way," said Hansen. "We're screwing our children, grandchildren, all future generations if we think we can use those unconventional fossil fuels."
Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune similarly argued that tar sands oil is "more toxic, more corrosive, more carbon intensive" than conventional crude.
The hearing's biggest sparks arose over the issue of climate change rather than over the pipeline itself. When committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) asked Harbert whether the U.S. Chamber of Commerce believes that climate change is real and human-caused, she initially dodged the question. "We believe we should be doing everything in our power to address the environment," said Harbert.
Menendez pressed again. "The climate is warming, without a doubt," said Harbert. "It is caused by lots of different things. You can't say it's only caused by humans."
The chamber has previously suggested in comments to the Environmental Protection Agency that climate change may actually be good for humans, contrary to the majority of scientists who say it will harm humankind.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) also raised doubts about climate science in the hearing, arguing with Hansen about whether it's real. "I think the science is far from settled," said Johnson.
The issue of how much the Keystone pipeline would contribute to planet-warming emissions is among the topics now before the Obama administration. The president said in his climate speech last June that the pipeline should be approved only if it "does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." The FEIS found that the pipeline's contribution to emissions was not likely to be significant because Canada's tar sands oils would be exploited anyway. But another recent study from the organization Carbon Tracker found that the pipeline would drive greater use of that resource than other shipping methods would.
There were no administration officials on hand for Thursday's hearing. Menendez said they were invited but declined to come because they felt it was inappropriate to weigh in on a matter under current consideration.
Kerry did testify Thursday morning at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the State Department's 2015 budget proposal. He was asked about his position on the pipeline.
"I am not at liberty to go into my thinking at this point -- it is just not appropriate -- except to say I am approaching this tabula rasa," Kerry said.