WASHINGTON — Happy anniversary, Keystone XL.
Thursday marked five years since TransCanada first applied for a presidential permit to build a pipeline connecting Alberta oil sands to refineries in Texas.
Backers “celebrated” the occasion on Capitol Hill with a hearing and press conference, continuing long-running efforts to pressure the Obama administration into approving the project.
In his role as chairman of a subcommittee on manufacturing, Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., called the latest in a series of hearings on the pipeline.
He has championed the project, which he says holds the promise of jobs and greater energy independence.
The hearing was a Nebraska family affair with several witnesses flying out from the state to testify on both sides.
Dennis Houston, president and CEO of the Norfolk Area Chamber of Commerce, painted a warm-and-fuzzy picture of good relations between work crews and locals during construction of the first Keystone pipeline through his area.
The bottom line, he said, was that TransCanada brought 750 new jobs to the area and became the area's third largest employer for the five months it was building the project.
That translated into a $10 million economic boost for the region, he said, at the peak of the recession.
“The positive economic impact of the TransCanada Keystone pipeline in Norfolk, a vibrant, rural community of nearly 25,000 people, was nothing short of amazing,” Houston said.
Jane Kleeb, head of the anti-Keystone XL group Bold Nebraska, testified against the project, saying the pipeline would not create any significant economic boom, only environmental risk. In particular, she cited the threat to the Sand Hills and the Ogallala Aquifer.
“America's national interest is not served by a project that lines the pockets of the few and I would say foreign, while risking the livelihoods and the lives of many Americans,” Kleeb testified.
Ron Kaminski, business manager for the Laborers' International Union of North America Local 1140, testified that TransCanada has labor agreements in place with his union and others. He took offense at opponents downplaying the impact of the construction jobs the project would bring because they are temporary. He said union members have lost their homes, health care and other benefits because of delays in the pipeline's construction.
“Construction workers deserve more respect,” Kaminski said.
After years of public debate over the pipeline, much of Thursday's hearing covered well-worn ground.
But there were some fireworks in the form of feisty exchanges between GOP committee members and Kleeb.
They tangled over how many pipelines currently run through the Ogallala aquifer, the timing of an administration decision, the number and nature of jobs that would be created.
Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, in particular, mixed it up with Kleeb as the two talked over one another repeatedly.
“Let me explain how this process works — you're testifying before the American people. That means I ask the questions and you answer,” Johnson said at one point.
“And I am a citizen paying your salary,” Kleeb shot back.
“Hey, that's not what this meeting is about,” Johnson responded, his voice rising. “You get to vote back in Nebraska. That's who your elected representatives are. I am in power right now to ask questions on behalf of the American people so don't start filibustering me.”
He pressed Kleeb on her husband Scott, who is the CEO of Energy Pioneer Solutions. Johnson cited a government grant that was awarded to the company.
“We have activists that are trying to game the system to benefit their own financial interests and then turn around and take taxpayer dollars,” he said.
“That is completely inappropriate,” Kleeb said.
Johnson went on to question whether she has a scientific background.
“Do you hold a graduate degree in any relevant field?” he asked. “You ever take a chemistry course? You ever take physics course?”
“Have you ever worked on a farm?” she responded.
“Absolutely, I'm a two-wheel, wagon-rut mule farmer,” Johnson said as his time expired.
The subcommittee's top Democrat, Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, used part of her time to give Kleeb the chance to respond further to Johnson.
Kleeb rejected any suggestion that her fight against the pipeline is motivated by any financial interest.
“There is one reason why we're fighting this pipeline,” Kleeb said. “It's because we don't believe that American farmers and ranches should have to take on the risks of a foreign tar-sands export pipeline.”