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Murkiness in Congress over tax relief bill forces Keystone XL back into debate

Posted Dec. 20, 2011 / Posted by: Kim Huynh

The first rule of Keystone XL: don’t underestimate the vice grip of Big Oil on our democracy, especially when it comes to its marquee project.

A month ago, we were celebrating—skeptically. We had gotten the welcome news that the Obama administration hit the reset button on the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline, announcing it will explore a new route and seek a new environmental review potentially stopping this dirty and dangerous project. The fight was far from over—we knew true victory could only mean an outright rejection of the 1,700 mile mega-pipeline ferrying in the world’s dirtiest oil—but we toasted to people power, to committed grassroots activism, to a justice-fueled future.

But a few weeks ago, Keystone XL reappeared on the table in end-of-the-year negotiations over extending the payroll tax break for 160 million workers in the U.S., set to expire December 31. The Keystone XL provision, attached by Speaker of the House John Boehner to the tax bill, forces President Obama to decide the future of the proposed pipeline within 60 days.

The bill passed the house last Wednesday night without fanfare. But in an astonishing show of Democrats caving to Republicans bought off by Big Oil, the Senate on Saturday voted to pass the bill in exchange for a payroll tax cut. As it so happens, Congress’s most vocal proponents of the pipeline are also its top beneficiaries of Big Oil money: Boehner is one of the top 10 recipients in the House this year, and has taken in $434,050 from the industry over his career. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said he will oppose any payroll bill that doesn’t include Keystone XL, is Senate’s biggest recipient of oil and gas money, receiving $199,000 this year.

The Senate-passed payroll tax cut bill would ensure a two-month extension of unemployment benefits for millions of Americans and that middle-class families aren’t saddled with a $1,000 tax burden next year. As they continue to threaten to take money out of the pockets of working Americans, the GOP is justifying this pro-pipeline provision in the bill as a jobs booster—when we know it would, in fact, be a net jobs killer.

It is, at the least, irresponsible legislating and, at the most, morally reprehensible that Big Oil-backed cronies in Congress would consider holding a tax-relief bill hostage with an utterly unrelated matter like Keystone XL. Yet, even that ill-advised concession by the Senate did not mollify House members as they continue to play chicken with the payroll tax bill today, now withdrawing their earlier approval of the Senate bill and calling on the Senate to enter into a conference negotiating committee.

As we head into the holidays, the fate of the payroll tax bill and the provision to fast-track the Keystone XL decision remains unclear, but a few things are certain:

  1. The Keystone XL pipeline is the continent’s biggest carbon bomb.  It would devastate our climate by piping in the world’s dirtiest oil—crude tar sands oil—through America’s heartland to refineries on the Gulf coast. Along its path, it would threaten communities with toxic spills and also harm people at both ends, leading to more poisoning of drinking water near tar sands extraction sites in Canada and increasing air pollution that causes lung disease near refineries in Texas.
  2. If the tax-relief bill is passed and signed into law, President Obama will have no choice but to reject the permit for Keystone XL in the absence of a credible, independent, science-based review of the pipeline.
  3. Friends of the Earth, along with our diverse coalition of climate activists, indigenous communities, Nebraska ranchers and landowners, and many others will be there to draw a line in the sand wherever TransCanada and Big Oil rears its ugly head.

 We know now, as we did after the Obama administration’s delay announcement on November 10th, that this fight is far from over.

Take action: Tell President Obama to stick to his word on Keystone XL and reject the pipeline once and for all.

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