The US Senate narrowly rejected a bill to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, the controversial project that would carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) sponsored the bill, which she hoped would prove her unflagging loyalty to the oil industry as she heads into a 12/6 runoff election with US Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-Baton Rouge), but the pipeline would not run through Louisiana anyway. The Senate voted 59-41 for the bill (11/18), but that was one short of the 60-votes needed to advance it under Senate rules. Democrats who voted for the bill included Sens. John Walsh and Jon Tester (Mont.); Joe Manchin III (W.V.); Landrieu; Tom Carper (Del.); Joe Donnelly (Ind.); Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.); Michael Bennet (Colo.); Mark Begich (Alaska); Mark Pryor (Ark.); Mark Warner (Va.); Kay Hagan (N.C.); Claire McCaskill (Mo.); and Bob Casey (Pa.).

Begich, Hagan, Pryor and Walsh will be replaced by Republicans in January, as will Tom Harkin of Iowa, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Mark Udall of Colorado, who voted against the bill, so Republicans might get the bill out of the Senate after it reorganizes in January, but they likely won’t have the 67 votes needed to override a possible presidential veto.

Republicans and the oil industry claim the project will employ 42,000 Americans, which Charles P. Pierce notes at Esquire.com, “is accurate only if you count temporary workers and itinerant strippers.” The State Department reported in January that the project will create about 2,000 jobs a year for the two years it will take to build the pipeline and then about 50 people to maintain the pipeline.

Asked about Keystone while traveling in Asia (11/14), President Obama said he has to constantly push back against the idea that the pipeline project is a “massive jobs bill.” He also rejected the idea that it would lower gas prices in the US. “Understand what this project is: It is providing the ability of Canada to pump their oil, send it through our land, down to the Gulf, where it will be sold everywhere else.” He added, “It doesn’t have an impact on US gas prices.”

(Obama has proposed a $302 bln four-year plan to fix the nation’s roads, bridges, tunnels and transit systems, which the White House said would support millions of jobs, but Republicans don’t want to talk about that. The American Society of Civil Engineers says $3.6 tln in work needs to be done to fix the nation’s crumbling infrastructure by 2020.)

The first section of the Keystone pipeline became operational in June 2010. The Cushing-Extension was completed in February 2011. Since being proposed in 2008, the 1,700-mile Keystone XL has been met with strong opposition from landowners and indigenous communities in the path of the pipeline and from the environmental community.

The pipeline, operated by TransCanada Corp., would carry the tar sands crude oil from Hardisty, Alberta, Canada, through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, joining to an existing junction at Steele City, Neb., and on to Texas, where it would be refined for export overseas. It would run through the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides drinking water for millions of Americans and provides 30% of the nation’s irrigation groundwater.

Construction of the 485-mile southern leg of the pipeline from Oklahoma through Texas is underway, but TransCanada still needs the White House to approve the crossing into the US. In November 2011, after tremendous pressure pipeline opponents, President Obama postponed a decision until 2013. In response, Senate Republicans introduced legislation aimed at forcing the Obama administration to approve the Keystone XL pipeline within 60 days, unless the president declared the project not in the national interest. On 1/18/12, President Obama rejected the project, stating that the arbitrary deadline made it impossible to adequately review it.

Public Citizen has called attention to reports of flaws in the project. The US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration warned that in one section, 205 out of 425 welds, or 48.2%, required repairs. The agency said Trans-Canada employed a welding process that was not a “previously qualified procedure” and “failed to use properly qualified welders.” Tom Smith of Public Citizen’s Texas office said startup of the southern segment should be delayed until the inspection is complete and the public can be certain that the pipeline is safe. “The risks of a disastrous spill are enormous for a pipeline that traverses hundreds of streams and rivers, and comes within miles of towns and cities,” Smith said.

The danger of a tar sands pipeline is shown in the damage done by a July 2010 tar sands spill into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River that took more than 3 years and cost more than $1 bln to clean up. More than 800,000 gallons of diluted bitumen from Canada’s Athabascan oil sands flowed into the Kalamazoo River, in the largest inland oil spill and one of the costliest spills in US history, and much of the heavy crude sank to the bottom of the riverand hasn’t biodegraded.

Alarms sounded at Enbridge Energy’s headquarters in Edmonton, Alberta, at the time of the rupture, but workers there thought the pipeline was blocked and increased the pressure to clear the flow. It took 18 hours before local officials, responding to complaints about the smells from benzene and other volatile hydrocarbons, found the spill and the pipeline was shut down. Officials closed 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River and advised nearby residents to evacuate or avoid the water. Portions of the river were reopened in June 2012, when the cleanup expense was estimated at $765 mln, but the EPA in March 2013 ordered Enbridge to return to dredge portions of the river to remove submerged oil and contaminated sediment.

Enbridge has almost finished the cleanup at a cost of $1.2 bln. It replaced and enlarged the pipeline from Indiana to Ontario, Canada, at a cost of $1.3 bln, over the resistance of landowners angry over the condemnation of their land and construction methods that landowners said were unnecessarily destructive, InsideClimateNews reported (8/28/14). Enbridge was fined $3.7 mln by the US Department of Transportation and it also faces a fine of up to $86 mln from the EPA.

Stephen Hamilton, an ecology professor at Michigan State University who is an adviser in the Kalamazoo River cleanup, told NPR (4/24/14) more regulation is needed for tar sands pipelines because tar sands spill can be more harmful to the environment and people than a conventional oil spill. Tar sands oil is a lot stickier than conventional crude, so everything it touches, even rocks, cannot be cleaned and needs to be thrown away, he said. “The consequences and the costs of the cleanup, once it gets into surface water systems as we’ve seen in the case of the Kalamazoo River, are incredibly high,” he said. “And, you know, we’ll never get it all out.”

The need for the Keystone XL pipeline also has eroded as the oil from the ongoing US fracking boom has flooded the Gulf Coast with domestic crude to levels not seen in decades, creating a homegrown oil glut in the nation’s refining center just as the Obama administration was preparing to rule on whether to allow the heavy Canadian crude to flow to the same region, Elizabeth Douglass noted at InsideClimateNews.org (11/6/14).

Since 2009, the combination of falling fuel demand and an unexpected surge in US oil and natural gas production has changed widely held assumptions about the nation’s need for imports. US refiners are now exporting record amounts of fuel to overseas customers, and there’s a parade of tankers delivering Texas oil to refineries on the east coast of Canada. As these and other surprising trends unfold, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the controversial Canadian oil import pipeline, the Keystone XL, is not an urgently needed link, Douglass noted.

But several of the Gulf Coast’s largest refiners have spent years and billions of dollars readying their plants to process the cheap heavy Canadian crude, which makes more diesel due to the physical properties of the crude. Diesel fetches higher prices than gasoline in export markets, Douglass noted. Light sweet oil grades, including the oil from North Dakota and South Texas that is flooding the Gulf Coast, produce a higher volume of gasoline, but have a lower profit margin.

RAND PAUL HELPS REPUBLICANS KILL NSA REFORM BILL. Senate Republicans, stoking fears about the threats posed by Islamic extremists, blocked a bill to rein in the National Security Agency’s abuse of domestic telephone call tracking (11/18). The USA Freedom Act, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), would have required the agency to get a court order to track domestic calls and added a privacy advocate to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court proceedings. Organizations as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association had endorsed the bill, but intelligence agencies’ allies in Congress fought to kill or weaken it, as they succeeded in doing with a companion measure that passed the House in May, Matt Sledge noted at HuffingtonPost.com. The Senate voted 58-42 for the bill, but that was two votes short of the number needed to advance the bill.

Mitch McConnell led the fight against the bill, arguing on the Senate floor that its passage would help the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, and other terrorist groups trying to evade US detection.

“God forbid that tomorrow we wake up to the news that a member of ISIL is in the United States,” echoed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Without the NSA’s call tracking program, he said, “that plot may go forward — and that would be a horrifying result.”

But Leahy pointed out that the NSA has never been able to show that the call tracking program, which aroused much controversy after it was exposed by leaker Edward Snowden in June 2013, has actually stopped a terror plot against the United States. “If this was important to stop ISIL, ISIL never would have started,” said Leahy.

Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Dean Heller (R-Nev.). Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) voted to advance the measure. One Dem, Bill Nelson of Florida, voted against it. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has also sought to paint himself as a libertarian opponent of the NSA, voted against cloture on the bill, claiming that it did not go far enough to rein in the Patriot Act. The provision of the Patriot Act that authorizes the call tracking program sunsets at the end of May 2015, but most observers expect it to be renewed in some form.

NEW SENATE CHAIR WOULD PRIVATIZE POSTAL SERVICE. If Congress does not pass legislation that would save the Postal Service from financial collapse before the end of its current session, the future of the nation’s mail service will be in the hands of a senator who opposes government unions and thinks the Postal Service should be privatized.

In January Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is slated to take over as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees the federal workforce and the Postal Service, Kira Lerner noted at ThinkProgress.org (11/18). Johnson has said the Postal Service should go through a bankruptcy process that would result in a downsized private corporation that would lose the benefits of governmental oversight and regulation. It also could allow the revised entity to terminate or substantially alter its contracts, including collective bargaining agreements with various postal unions.

Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) have introduced the Postal Reform Act of 2014, which would restructure the needless requirement that the agency pre-fund 75 years’ worth of employee health benefits at $5.5 bln a year, a demand no other businesses or institutions face. The bill also would allow an end to Saturday mail service and termination of door-to-door service.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) noted that Postal Service revenue rose by $569 mln during the 2014 fiscal year that ended 9/30/14, the second year in a row that profits have risen, mainly due to increases in package deliveries to online shoppers, but the Postal Service is forging ahead with plans to shut down as many as 82 mail processing plants beginning in January, which would put 15,000 jobs in jeopardy. Without the mandated $5.5 bln in annual pre-funding of health benefits for retirees, Sanders noted, the Postal Service would have an operating profit of $823 mln over the past two years.

Sanders has introduced a Postal Service Protection Act with 28 Senate co-sponsors and a companion bill filed by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) in the House that would modernize the Postal Service, eliminate the pre-funding requirement and let it expand its business operations without the need to slash services or eliminate Saturday mail.

SENATORS UP FOR ELECTION IN 2016 include Democrats Michael Bennet (Colo.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Barbara Mikulski (Md.), Patty Murray (Wash.), Harry Reid (Nev.), Brian Schatz (Hawaii); Charles Schumer (N.Y.), and Ron Wyden (Ore.).

Republicans up for election include Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Roy Blunt (Mo.), John Boozman (Ark.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Dan Coats (Ind.), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), John Hoeven (N.D.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Ron Johnson (Wis.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), James Lankford (Okla.), Mike Lee (Utah), John McCain (Ariz.), Jerry Moran (Kansas), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Rand Paul (Ky.), Rob Portman (Ohio), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Tim Scott (S.C.), Richard Shelby (Ala.), John Thune (S.D.), Pat Toomey (Pa.), David Vitter (La.).

PUBLIC TRUSTS GOP OVER DEMS ON ECONOMY. Despite the recovery of the US economy under President Obama since 2009 over the opposition of austerity-minded Republicans, a new poll has disturbing news for Democrats: the country trusts Republicans rather than Democrats when it comes to the economy. A new Economic Media Project study conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research on behalf of the Democratic-leaning Democracy Corps found that, despite Democrats having a 5-point partisan identification advantage over Republicans, more people (43% to 38%) think Republicans have a better handle on the economy than Democrats. That’s “a 10 point deficit based on the presumptive partisan orientation,” the memo from the study said. “The public really has pulled back from Democrats on the economy,” the memo said.

Daniel Strauss noted at TalkingPointsMemo.com (11/18) that conservatives don’t dominate the issue but liberals are still trailing them. “The progressive-liberal economic approach centered on creating full employment, raising incomes at every level, and public investment stands only at parity with a conservative approach that stresses reductions in the size of government and level spending, cutting taxes, and making entrepreneurship easier,” the memo said. “Conservatives are not dominating this space, but liberals must begin to win these debates in order to have a real impact on policy change.”

But the study’s findings suggested that high government spending and an increasing number of regulations (areas often focused on by conservatives) aren’t nearly as important to the “rising American electorate” as equal pay for women and jobs that offer a sufficient wage to live on.

PENSIONS TARGETED BY UNSCRUPULOUS LENDERS. Hard-earned pensions of veterans and federal retirees are being targeted by unscrupulous companies who have begun to market a deceptive financial product called a “pension advance.”

The companies target vulnerable retirees — often those with poor credit and in need of extra income. Lenders say pension advances offer “painless” borrowing, but they don’t disclose hidden fees and high interest rates, which often range from  27% to 46% – high enough to plunge the retirees who take these loans even deeper into debt. 

Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) has introduced HR 3310, the Annuity Safety and Security Under Reasonable Enforcement Act (ASSURE Act), which would make unfair pension advances illegal. See PensionRights.org.

TEXAS OIL ‘REGULATOR’ WON’T HONOR TOWN’S FRACKING BAN. On 11/4, the town of Denton, Texas, voted by a wide margin to ban fracking in the city. Two days later, the chairwoman of Texas’ oil and gas permitter said she would not honor the ban.

Texas Railroad Commission Chairwoman Christi Craddick (R) told the Dallas Morning News (11/6) that she would continue giving permits to oil and gas companies seeking to frack in Denton. Craddick asserted she could override the ban because Denton does not have authority over drilling activity in the state.

“It’s my job to give permits, not Denton’s,” Craddick said. “We’re going to continue permitting up there because that’s my job.”

Fracking — the process of injecting water, sand and chemicals underground to extract oil and gas from shale formations — has a long history in Denton, one of the most heavily-fracked towns in Texas. Residents have complained of poor air quality, disruptive noise in residential areas, and an increase in low-magnitude earthquakes. Voters decided 59%-41% to ban the practice.

ELECTION OVER, CAMPAIGN TO REDUCE POVERTY STARTS. A report by the Half in Ten campaign (11/17) is calling on Congress to get serious about passing legislation to cut poverty, building on the growing momentum at the state and local levels to make poverty reduction a national priority.

This year’s report—which includes a foreword from New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (D)—saw the first statistically significant decrease in the poverty rate since 2006 and only the second decrease since 2000, but the actual number of Americans living in poverty remained statistically unchanged at 45.3 mln in 2013. Despite this stagnant figure, the report highlights how a national anti-poverty agenda for 2016 is already building momentum at the local level, with states and municipalities across the country adopting policies that promote economic security among low- and moderate-income families.

“Where Congress has failed to effectively address poverty—in some cases, actively making the situation more challenging for low-income families—a growing number of cities and states are adopting policies that help working families escape and stay out of poverty,” said Erik Stegman, Associate Director of Half in Ten at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “Americans across the country are mobilizing around progressive policies to reduce poverty, but it’s time to take these efforts to the next level and make dramatic poverty reduction a national priority.”

“Fifty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, women, communities of color, and people with disabilities continue to face far too many barriers to economic prosperity,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a partner of Half in Ten. “We can and must do better to lift families out of poverty and reverse the destructive trend of economic inequity. It’s time for Congress to heed the calls for action from across the nation and get to work for all Americans.”

In 2014 alone, 10 states and the District of Columbia have increased their minimum wage, and a number of states and major US cities have adopted paid sick leave policies. Meanwhile, the minimum-wage ballot initiatives in the 2014 midterm elections went five for five, winning by an average margin of 26 points even in four red states. Additionally, voters across the country overwhelmingly supported paid sick leave initiatives this election cycle.

“The demand for poverty reduction is being felt around the country. Washington, D.C., and 23 states have a higher minimum wage than the federal $7.25 now, and voters in four states just enacted increases; states and localities are starting to require employers to provide at least some paid sick leave,” said Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, a partner of Half in Ten. “We are getting sick and tired of an economy that continues to leave millions of families behind. But without more federal action, we cannot ensure that everyone has a chance to escape poverty.”

Half in Ten’s report includes a series of policy recommendations to reduce poverty and expand economic security and opportunity to all Americans. Among recommendations, the report calls on the federal government, states, and cities to enact living-wage provisions; expand access to paid sick leave; maintain and strengthen the Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit and American Opportunity Tax Credit; ensure affordable, high-quality child care and pre-K; expand access to health care insurance coverage; improve unemployment insurance; and support legislation that puts affordable and available housing within the reach of more families.

Read the report, “Building Local Momentum for National Change,” at americanprogressaction.org.

KRUGMAN: GOVERNMENT CAN DO GOOD. Paul Krugman noted in his New York Times column (11/17) that the great American freakout over Ebola appears to be over. “It was, specifically, held up by America’s right wing as a symbol of government failure. The usual suspects claimed that the Obama administration was falling down on the job, but more than that, they insisted that conventional policy was incapable of dealing with the situation. Leading Republicans suggested ignoring everything we know about disease control and resorting to extreme measures like travel bans, while mocking claims that health officials knew what they were doing.”

But those officials actually did know what they were doing. “The real lesson of the Ebola story is that sometimes public policy is succeeding even while partisans are screaming about failure,” he said. “And it’s not the only recent story along those lines.”

He noted that after Solyndra, the renewable-energy firm that borrowed money using Department of Energy guarantees, then went bust, costing the Treasury $528 mln, conservatives pounded on that loss relentlessly, turning it into a symbol of what they claim is rampant crony capitalism and a huge waste of taxpayer money.

“Defenders of the energy program tried in vain to point out that anyone who makes a lot of investments, whether it’s the government or a private venture capitalist, is going to see some of those investments go bad. For example, Warren Buffett is an investing legend, with good reason — but even he has had his share of lemons, like the $873 million loss he announced earlier this year on his investment in a Texas energy company. Yes, that’s half again as big as the federal loss on Solyndra.”

The important question is whether there is a pattern of bad loans, and he noted that in November the agency revealed that the program that included Solyndra is, in fact, on track to return profits of $5 bln or more.

Then there’s health reform, where much of the national dialogue over the Affordable Care Act was dominated by fake scandals drummed up by the enemies of reform. “But if you look at the actual results so far, they’re remarkably good. The number of Americans without health insurance has dropped sharply, with around 10 million of the previously uninsured now covered; the program’s costs remain below expectations, with average premium rises for next year well below historical rates of increase; and a new Gallup survey finds that the newly insured are very satisfied with their coverage. By any normal standards, this is a dramatic example of policy success, verging on policy triumph.”

Then he noted the mockery of Obama administration assertions that budget deficits, which soared during the financial crisis, would come down as the economy recovered. “Surely the exploding costs of Obamacare, combined with a stimulus program that would become a perpetual boondoggle, would lead to vast amounts of red ink, right? Well, no — the deficit has indeed come down rapidly, and as a share of G.D.P. it’s back down to pre-crisis levels,” he said.

“The moral of these stories is not that the government is always right and always succeeds. Of course there are bad decisions and bad programs. But modern American political discourse is dominated by cheap cynicism about public policy, a free-floating contempt for any and all efforts to improve our lives. And this cheap cynicism is completely unjustified. It’s true that government-hating politicians can sometimes turn their predictions of failure into self-fulfilling prophecies, but when leaders want to make government work, they can.”

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2014


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