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GOP lawmakers reopen fight over Keystone XL pipeline

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As House Republicans reopen efforts Wednesday to win approval for the Keystone XL energy project, new lobbying records filed over the weekend reveal a lopsided spending battle over the controversial proposed pipeline.

The Keystone pipeline has become an emblematic fight for those who see the pipeline as a North American job creator versus those who see it as an environmental disaster.

Environmentalists have applied political pressure through protest, but their lobbying expenditures on the pipeline have been dwarfed by those of their opponents. Three environmental groups that mention Keystone in their lobbying reports -- National Wildlife Federation, League of Conservation Voters and Western Organization of Resource Councils -- had a combined 2012 budget of $335,000 to lobby on a wide range of issues. Meanwhile, TransCanada, the company seeking permission to build the pipeline, spent $1.74 million on federal lobbying. Also backing the pipeline other organizations with substantial Capitol Hill lobbying presences, such as Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Shell Oil and some labor unions.

Last week, President Obama turned down a congressional effort to win quick approval of the 1,700-mile pipeline, which would cross fragile ecosystems and an aquifer, contending that the Feb. 21 deadline established by Congress for a decision didn't give the State Department enough time to evaluate the environmental impact. A permit by the State Department is required because the pipeline would cross the U.S.-Canadian border. 

Responding in a press release, TransCanada drew a parallel between oil obtained from undemocratic regimes overseas and conflict minerals, suggesting that U.S. officials preferred "conflict oil" from the Middle East to Canadian resources. Keystone officials have said they will reapply for a permit for the cross-border pipeline and have hinted that they will propose re-routing it to avoid crossing a sensitive aquifer in Nebraska. 

But House Republicans are attempting to keep the debate alive. The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on The North American Energy Access Act, introduced by panel member Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., that would require a permit for the pipeline within 30 days of the legislation's enactment. In a statement to Sunlight, a spokeswoman from the committee's Republican majority, accused the State Department of having "reversed its course" on the Keystone project.  "It was clearly politics that derailed the project," she said, warning that if Congress doesn't act quickly, the nation could "lose this valuable energy resource to China."

The hearing set off a high-stakes game of witness chicken: There had been reports that Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., might summon Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to testify on the Keystone decision, but the State Department is sending one of her deputies instead. Efforts by Democrats to snag a high profile witness similarly have been disappointed: Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., proposed calling representatives of Koch Industries, one of the companies that could benefit from the pipeline.  The notoriously publicity-averse David and Charles Koch, scions of the company founder, are major financial backers of conservative Republican causes. 

TransCanada has also been asserting lobbying muscle in states that could provide domestic supplies for its existing energy pipelines in the U.S. There is plenty of room for domestic expansion without State Department approval. As seen in the graphic from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, oil and gas production has ballooned in Montana and North Dakota since 1985. The yellow dots signify the wells with higher percentages of oil. In Montana, where  TransCanada spent $12,000 on lobbying in 2011, Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer has been a supporter of the Keystone XL project and has blamed Nebraska for the failure of the pipeline 

In North Dakota, another state where rising energy prices have prompted an energy boom, Trans Canada hired lobbyist named Todd D. Kranda but state records do not disclose the amount the contract is worth. Look here to see an overview of TransCanada's state and international lobbying.

Spurring opposition to the project is the fact that the product that would flow through the Keystone XL pipeline comes from Canadian oil sands. The poor quality of the crude, known as bitumen, makes the refining process more energy intensive. The same criticism could also apply to oil shale. As the map below shows, oil shale is abundant in the U.S. Commercially viable technology requires oil shale to be excavated from the ground and then heated for processing, creating a sizable environmental impact. Existing Keystone pipeline could permit U.S. oil shale resources to be routed to refineries with a less stringent permitting process than that required for the trans-border pipeline.. 

This post was updated 6pm ET to include comment from the Energy and Commerce Committee spokeswoman.