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c.2013 Houston Chronicle

The measure by Reps. Gene Green, D-Houston, and Fred Upton, R-Mich., would require federal agencies to approve proposed border-crossing pipelines and power lines within 120 days unless they are deemed to be against the national security interest of the United States.

During a congressional hearing on the bill, Green said the goal was to speed up just one step in the approval process - the point at which projects must receive presidential permits. He said projects still would have to clear environmental reviews, public comment periods and analysis customary for interstate energy infrastructure that doesn't cross international boundaries.

But administration officials had a different interpretation. The measure, as worded now, could curtail environmental assessments even beyond the presidential permit stage, said Jeff Wright, director of energy projects at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

In particular, the proposed 120-day approval process "would negate the ability of the commission to consider stakeholder concerns and severely curtail the commission's ability to conduct a thorough analysis of a project involving border facilities, resulting in a decision whose sustainability is questionable," Wright told the House Energy and Power Subcommittee.

Wright said his agency doesn't have experience making "national security" determinations on projects - a threshold he said would be easier to clear than the existing requirement that border-crossing projects be in the public interest.

Officials from the departments of Energy and Commerce raised similar concerns in written statements filed with the panel.

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Michael Knotek, the deputy undersecretary for science and energy, said the bill could block the Energy Department from making "reasoned and responsible decisions," while hindering "consideration of the environmental effects of such projects."

''The bill would prevent the thorough consideration of complex issues that could have serious safety, environmental, and other ramifications," Knotek said.

Kevin Wolf, the assistant secretary for export administration at the Commerce Department, said the 120-day deadline would "unnecessarily limit the ability for the executive branch to make reasoned and responsible decisions."

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The Upton-Green bill effectively would replace the existing structure for vetting border-crossing energy infrastructure projects - an ad hoc presidential permit process created by executive orders over decades.

Democrats and Republicans broadly agreed that it is time for Congress to put its stamp on the process, as surging North American oil and gas development boosts the need for new and modified pipelines across the continent.

Upton argued that many upcoming cross-border projects face long delays and other projects that have been in existence for decades end up in regulatory limbo over minor issues such as changes in ownership.

The result, he said, is that industry and investors are dissuaded from entering the U.S. market.

Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., said he agreed that perhaps Congress should act to set the rules for these projects, rather than have the process set by executive orders.

But, he said, it is important for lawmakers to understand all of the existing problems first and preserve important safeguards in the process. "We shouldn't have a rushed process that isn't going to provide meaningful review," McNerney said.

The bill would put the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in charge of vetting gas pipelines that cross into Canada and Mexico. The corresponding responsibility would fall to the Commerce Department for oil pipelines and to the Energy Department for electric transmission lines.

The legislation also would make clear that changes to existing border-crossing energy infrastructure - such as reversing the flow of oil and gas in pipelines - do not need new or revised presidential permits.

Under the approach in place now, companies have sought new and revised presidential permits for changing the flow of pipelines and ownership changes.

Bill backers said the legislation would not change the process for pending border-crossing pipelines and power lines.

The legislation includes an effective date of July 1, 2015 - a bid to quell criticism that TransCanada Corp. could reapply for its proposed Keystone XL pipeline under the new process, if the measure became law.

That project has faced years of scrutiny at the presidential permit stage.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said he didn't think the bill's provisions would definitely keep the "zombie" of Keystone XL from returning even if the Obama administration rejects it.

''Even if the administration rejects KXL because it is not in the public interest, KXL can rise from the grave and reapply," Waxman said. "It would then be rubber stamped under the new process." XXX - End of Story