As expected, Senate Democrats prevented a bill authorizing construction of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline from advancing in the Senate.
The fate of the pipeline still remains with the State Department, because the pipeline would cross from Canada through the United States.
President Obama already has made his feelings known, saying through a spokesman that he would veto any bill that emerged from Congress.
According to media reports, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell moved to end debate on the bill, a version of which had already cleared the Republican-controlled House. But Republicans could only muster 53 votes for cloture, or an end to the debate, on two separate roll calls. Under parliamentary rules, 60 votes are needed for cloture.
The New York Times reported: “The move ensures that senators will continue to debate the bill — most likely for another week — before Republicans again try to bring the measure up for a final vote.”
The GOP had no doubt hoped for more Democrats. As Politico reported:
The legislation … on Monday lost a vote from one of its longtime backers, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) — now a member of party leadership as chief of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — but picked up a vote from Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), the former DSCC chairman who has not formally signed onto the pipeline bill.
Two other Democrats who have backed stripping Obama’s power to decide on a Keystone permit, Sens. Claire McCaskill and Mark Warner, missed the Monday vote.
“I’d like to see us decide Keystone and move on,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, one of the pro-Keystone Democrats who voted with the GOP to cut off debate, told reporters.
Keystone’s backers initially expected the pipeline votes would end this week. But Democratic anger over the majority leader’s move to close off the debate on their amendments last week has made the pipeline bill a power struggle, with Democrats pushing McConnell to continue the freewheeling energy debate on the floor that has delved into topics ranging from climate change to eminent domain.
On the same day two Republican senators introduced a bill authorizing construction of the Keystone XL oil-pipeline extension, the White House said President Obama would veto such a bill if it reached his desk.
“If this bill passes this Congress, the president wouldn’t sign it,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday.
Republicans took over control of the Senate as the 114th Congress was sworn in Tuesday. The GOP, and some Democrats, have supported the pipeline project for much of the past six years that it’s been in limbo, and the party wasted no time in sponsoring a bill to pressure the Obama administration to approve it: Sens. Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, and John Hoeven, Republican of North Dakota, introduced the Senate bill, and a committee hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.
The House is expected to begin deliberations on its own Keystone bill on Friday.
The last time the House passed an authorization, in November, it was blocked from proceeding by Senate Democrats. But with fewer numbers, the measure has a greater chance of passing this time.
However, the Senate needs 67 votes — two-thirds — to override a presidential veto. As BusinessWeek reported, Hoeven says he has 63 votes in favor of approval, four shy of a veto-proof majority.
Reaction to the White House announcement ran the gamut. House Speaker John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, said in a statement:
On a bipartisan basis, the American people overwhelmingly support building the Keystone XL pipeline. After years of manufacturing every possible excuse, today President Obama was finally straight with them about where he truly stands. His answer is no to more American infrastructure, no to more American energy, and no to more American jobs.
By contrast, environmental activist Bill McKibben, writing in The Guardian, praised the effort that led to the veto threat, considering the pipeline once was considered a shoo-in for approval.
Keystone’s not dead yet – feckless Democrats in the Congress could make some kind of deal later this month or later this year, and the president could still yield down the road to the endlessly corrupt State Department bureaucracy that continues to push the pipeline – but it’s pretty amazing to see what happens when people organize.
The State Department has concluded that the 1,179-mile pipeline extension, which would carry oil-sands crude from western Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, wouldn’t significantly add to carbon emissions, but the project would create only 35 permanent U.S. jobs.
Regardless of what happens between Congress and Obama, the final decision on Keystone rests with the State Department, which reports to the president. State has responsibility because the pipeline, to be built by TransCanada Corp., would cross the Canada-U.S. border.
The Post added:
“I think the president has been pretty clear that he does not think that circumventing a well-established process for evaluating these projects is … the right thing for Congress to do,” Earnest said.
Obama rejected a Canadian firm’s application to build the pipeline in 2012.
At a year-end news conference in December, Obama sought to downplay the benefits of the pipeline. He said the benefits for U.S. citizens and workers from the pipeline would be “nominal.”
“I think that there’s been this tendency to really hype this thing as some magic formula to what ails the U.S. economy,” Obama said.
A story in The Los Angeles Times asks a pertinent question: With the price of oil low (by recent historical standards) and continuing to fall, do the economics of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline even make sense anymore?
After all, it’s expensive to extract the kind of tar-sands oil in western Canada that would flow through the pipeline, and the price of oil has to be a certain level for the process to be profitable.
That’s why even pro-business people who are in favor of oil production are questioning whether the pipeline extension — which would be built from Canada to Nebraska, linking up with an existing line to the Gulf of Mexico — would reward investors.
With the GOP about to take control of both houses of Congress, backers of the pipeline say they are close to having a veto-proof majority for a bill that would order the Obama administration to give the project the federal permit required for pipelines that cross a U.S. border.
But “the political debate is not paralleled by the realities” in the market, said Sandy Fielden, director of energy analytics at Texas-based RBN Energy. “The economics of this project are becoming increasingly borderline.”
President Obama could use his veto pen to scuttle the legislation, but the State Department will ultimately have the final say on whether the pipeline gets approved. TransCanada Corp. still wants to build it, and GOP leadership still wants to get it done as well, economics or no.
TransCanada says investors still want it, because they’re thinking long-term and aren’t concerned about a short-term glut of oil that has suppressed prices.
“We sign binding, long-term commercial agreements with our customers so they can reserve space to deliver the crude oil they need to their customers,” Mark Cooper, a spokesman for TransCanada Corp., which would own the pipeline, wrote in an email.
The oil shippers investing in the pipeline, Cooper wrote, “have a good understanding of what the market needs over time. They do not make decisions based on short-term views or changes in commodity prices.”
To read the newspapers these days, you’d think that all the innovation in energy is involved in bringing down the cost of solar panels or building even bigger blades for windmills. But innovation still continues apace in oil and gas, both in pulling them out of the ground and in finding new ways to use them.
“We haven’t been giving the big oil companies enough credit,” said Dominic Basulto in The Washington Post. “ Sure, we may see their print ads or watch as they tout their accomplishments on TV, but deep down, many of us believe that the brightest minds have moved on to something new in energy innovation. But that’s not true.”
That’s important because if we’re going to use our abundant natural gas supplies to wean ourselves off of foreign oil, we’re going to have to be sure the current superabundance of natural gas isn’t just a flash in the pan. Moreover, we’re going to need innovation in making the transition to methane-based liquid alcohol fuels easier as well.
As most people have heard by now, even our best technologies can’t extract more than about 10-20% out of an oil or gas reservoir from the earth. Simply doubling that rate would give us access to huge, new quantities of domestic fuels.
There’s also a concern that fracking wells will have a much shorter lifespan than traditional gas and oil wells. Then there’s all that natural gas being flared off in the Bakken. Ending that conspicuous form of waste will require some new technology.
All these problems are being tackled through innovation, however, and that’s what Basulto is talking about.
Although everybody knows about fracking — the technology of forcing sand and water into the rock to break it up — few realize that the real novelty that makes up the current upturn in production possible is horizontal drilling, which allows access to entire geological strata without making the territory look like a pincushion.
“Today, drilling rigs are so good that they can punch holes in the earth that are two miles deep, turn the drill bit 90 degrees, drill another two miles horizontally, and arrive within a few inches of the target,” said Robert Bryce, author of “Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser, Cheaper,” a book about innovation in the energy industry. But horizontal drilling hasn’t stood still. ExxonMobil has developed an “extended reach” technology that can push outward several miles further deep in the earth. “Extended reach reduces our environmental footprint and in offshore applications will limit our presence in the marine environment,” says the company’s website. It may have been developments like this that prompted President Obama to give a green light to exploration off the Atlantic Coast from Delaware to Florida last month.
The same innovations are occurring with natural gas fracking. Innovators have made an improvement called “sleeve technology” that surrounds the drill bit and allows highly accurate placement of stimulation treatments. The result is that wells can be drilled twice as fast as a few years ago, at a lower cost. With increased precision in both drilling and fracturing, wells are being made more productive as well. Erika Johnsen on Hot Air said, “Data from the Energy Information Administration’s Drilling and Production Report shows that a Marcellus Shale well completed by a rig in April 2014 can be expected to yield over 6 million cubic feet of natural gas per day (Mcf/d) more than a well completed by that rig in that formation in 2007.” That’s a huge improvement in the space of seven short years.
All this is good news for the effort of substituting natural gas-based ethanol or methanol for foreign oil in our cars. After all, one of the fundamental considerations is that there will be enough natural gas around to keep the price reasonable. With so many competing proposals for employing natural gas — electrical generation, the industrial revival, LNG exports, etc. — it’s crucial that we keep expanding production.
So it’s encouraging to hear the news from Clean Energy Fuels, T. Boone Pickens’ baby, which has been building a “CNG Highway” across the country to service long-haul tractor-trailers. CEF has just completed the first leg of this nationwide network, connecting Los Angeles and Houston.
But much of the nation still lies outside the reach of natural gas pipelines and CEF is figuring out a way to serve them, as well. Last month the company opened a filling station in Pembroke, New Hampshire that will be served by a “virtual pipeline” of high-tech tractor-trailers making round-the-clock deliveries. This will allow the station to pump 10 million gasoline-gallon-equivalents (GGE), twice the volume of CEF’s largest existing station. More important, it will open up large areas of the country that have not had access to CNG. This natural gas-based substitute will sell for 30% less than gasoline.
Technology never stands still. Sometimes it forces us to give up things that have become familiar or even seemingly permanent. But as Robert Bryce said, the new technology is usually “faster, smaller, lighter, denser and cheaper.” And in the case of methane-based liquid fuels, it will mean freeing ourselves from foreign oil as well.
Fuel Freedom recently learned about a man named David Ramey who drove his 1992 Buick Park Avenue from Blacklick, Ohio to San Diego using 100 percent butanol, without making any adjustments to his engine.
Ordinarily this wouldn’t be big news. But with the EPA now considering cutbacks in the 2014 biofuels mandate, some producers of ethanol are starting to turn to butanol as a way of getting around the limitations of the 10 percent “blend wall” that is threatening to limit ethanol consumption. This could be another breakthrough in our efforts to limit foreign oil.
Butanol is the alcohol form of butane gas, which has four carbons. Because it has a longer hydrocarbon chain, butane is fairly non-polar and more similar to gasoline than either methanol or ethanol. The fuel has been demonstrated to work in gasoline engines without any modification to the fuel chain or software.
Since the 1950s, most butanol in the United States has been manufactured from fossil fuels. But butanol can also be produced by fermentation, and that’s where another opportunity for reducing our dependence on fossil fuels exists.
The key is a bacterial strain called Clostridium acetobutylicum, also named the Weizmann organism for pioneering biological researcher Chaim Weizmann, who first used it to produce acetone from starch in 1916. The main use for the acetone was producing Cordite for gunpowder, but the butanol, a byproduct, eventually became more important.
Once set loose on almost any substratum, Clostridium acetobutylicum will produce significant amounts of butanol. Anything used to produce ethanol — sugar beets, sugar cane, corn grain, wheat and cassava, plus non-food crops such as switchgrass and guayule and even agricultural byproducts such as bagasse, straw and corn stalks — can all be turned into butanol. (Of course, not all of these are economical yet.)
Given the modern-day techniques of genetic engineering, researchers are now hard at work trying to improve the biological process. In 2011, scientists at Tulane University announced they had discovered a new strain of Clostridium that can convert almost any form of cellulose into butanol and is the only known bacterium that can do it in the presence of oxygen. They discovered this new bacterium in, of all places, the fecal matter of the plains zebra in the New Orleans Zoo.
DuPont and BP are planning to make butanol the first product of their joint effort to develop next-generation biofuels. In Europe, the Swiss company Butalco is developing genetically modified yeasts from the production of biobutanol from cellulosic material. Gourmet Butanol, a U.S. company, is developing a process that utilizes fungi for the same purpose. Almost every month, plans for a new butanol production plant are announced somewhere in the world. Many refineries that formerly produced bioethanol are now being retrofitted to produce biobutanol instead. DuPont says the conversion is very easy.
What are the possible drawbacks? Well, to match the combustion characteristics of gasoline, butanol will require slight fuel-flow increases, although not as great as those required for ethanol and methanol. Butanol also may not be compatible with some fuel system components. It can also create slight gas-gauge misreadings.
While ethanol and methanol have lower energy density than butanol, both have a higher octane rating. This means butanol would not be able to function as an octane-boosting additive, as ethanol and methanol are now doing. There have been proposals; however, the proposals are for a fuel that is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent butanol (E85B), which eliminate the fossil fuels from ethanol mixes altogether.
The only other objection that has been raised is that consumers may object to butanol’s banana-like smell. Other than that, the only problem is cost. Production of butanol from a given substratum of organic material is slightly lower than ethanol, although the increased energy content more than makes up for the difference.
Ironically, the EPA’s decision to cut back on the biofuels mandate for 2014 is now driving some refiners to convert to butanol, since its greater energy density will help it overcome the 10 percent “blend wall.”
“Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association, an industry group, said butanol was a ‘drop-in’ fuel, able to be used with existing gasoline pipelines and other equipment because it does not have a tendency to take up water, as ethanol does,” The New York Times reported last October. “‘It’s more fungible in the existing infrastructure,’ he said. ‘You could blend it with gasoline and put it in a pipeline — no problem.’
“Butanol would also help producers get around the so-called blend wall, Mr. McAdams said…With the 10 percent limitation, ‘you don’t have enough gasoline to put the ethanol in,’ he said. ‘You don’t have that problem with butanol.’”
So here’s to butanol. It will be yet another big step in reducing our dependence in foreign fuels.