WASHINGTON -- At a hearing on the approval of the Keystone XL, a controversial oil pipeline that would expand Canada's oil sand imports to refineries in Texas, House Republicans mocked Democrats for questioning the Koch brothers' involvement in Canadian oil-sands development. Billionaire philanthropist and Democratic donor George Soros, it was noted, has significant ties to oil-sands operations as well.
"I don't know if the Koch brothers had an interest in this project or not," said Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), chairman of the energy and power subcommittee. "I do know, or have been told, that George Soros has a strong interest in Suncor [Energy], the oil-sands company that would directly benefit from this pipeline. We know that Mr. Soros contributes huge amounts of money to Moveon.org -- whose purpose is to defeat Republican Tea Party members and others -- and I have no objection to that, except that I wish he wouldn't do that!"
The remarks come after Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) sent a letter requesting an investigation into whether Koch Industries, the energy conglomerate headed by the billionaire brothers who fund conservative causes, have oil sands-related investments that stand to benefit from the pipeline.
Planned by Calgary-based TransCanada, the pipeline would run through five U.S. states including Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma, before reaching oil refineries in Texas.
Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee met Monday to discuss a GOP bill that would expedite the permitting of the 1,900-mile pipeline, pushing the Obama administration to approve the project before the end of 2011.
But environmental groups strongly oppose the pipeline, which would utilize Alberta's oil sands, a highly polluting source of fuel that requires a tarry oil be squeezed from sand and rock that's been strip-mined from the land. Further, green groups note, the project could spell ecological disaster in the event of an accident.
Keystone XL would double the carrying capacity of an existing TransCanada Corp pipeline that currently ends in Oklahoma, and supporters argue it could significantly reduce U.S. reliance on oil from the Middle East.
State Department officials announced last month that a new environmental study on the project had revealed "no new issues of substance" since the first report was issued a year ago. Officials there have been tasked with deciding whether to give TransCanada a permit for the pipeline, as the project crosses an international boundary.
Environmental groups say the State Department report left major issues unaddressed, such as pipeline safety information and the hazards of routing over the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides drinking water to people in eight states. Some suspect a conflict of interest.
Last week, a coalition of environmental and ethics groups sued Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the U.S. State Department for details on exchanges between a TransCanada lobbyist and the administration, HuffPost's Tom Zeller Jr. reported. The lobbyist, Paul Elliott, formerly served as a deputy campaign director for Clinton during her failed presidential bid in 2008.
At Monday's hearing, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) said he had "serious concerns" about the bill -- which would set a Nov. 1 deadline for the State Department to approve the project -- saying it would force the administration to adhere to an "arbitrary timeline" and reduce or eliminate the 30-day public comment period.
Beyond concerns for the need for public input, critics said it was important to know who was benefiting from the legislation.
"What's good for oil companies is not always good for America," Waxman said in opening remarks. "My staff contacted Koch last week to learn more about its investments in tar sands. Other oil companies, such as Conoco Phillips and Shell, have been willing to discuss their interests in developing tar sands. But Koch refused to answer basic questions."
Waxman isn't the only one who wants those questions answered.
Brave New Foundation, headed by documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald, has released a new video as part of their "Koch Brothers Exposed" series, calling on Americans to pressure the State Department not to approve the pipeline.
“The Keystone XL Pipeline has the potential for an environmental catastrophe similar to the BP oil spill," said Greenwald in a statement. "Homeowners and everyday Americans in the heartland stand to lose as the Koch brothers enrich their coffers through this dirty fuel money grab. We urge Hillary Clinton to say no to this proposal."
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) has scoffed at the idea of investigating the Koch brothers, calling the whole line of inquiry an "outrageous accusation."
"This blatant political sideshow is simply a distraction that, in the end, underscores the desperation of those who want to stand in the way of this common sense project,” Upton wrote in his prepared remarks on Monday. "Today we hope to have a serious, adult conversation."
Upton was not present at the hearing’s opening to make his case but fellow Republicans took up the cause.
"This is not about personalities," said Whitfield. "This is about a project and its benefit or lack of benefit to the American people."