Neil McCabe

Capitol Hill supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline are hitting the panic button over a seemingly harmless amendment to a non-controversial federal land-swap bill to facilitate a new Arizona copper mine.

The amendment, filed Sept. 26 by Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D.-N.M.) to H.R. 687, the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act, a bill that authorizes the transfer of federal land in Arizona to the Resolution Copper mine partnership, in exchange for land owned Resolution, gives the Secretary of Interior the power to designate a site as sacred or culturally significant to Indians.

Remember, there are already protections for sacred sites in current law, one of bills innovations is to mingle in the “cultural,” which really means anything or nothing.

There are no concrete requirements for this designation, and because there is no process for the private land owner to appeal, the only recourse would be that harsh wilderness called the federal court system.

In his public statements, Lujan presents this amendment as a protection for sacred Indian sites threatened by the operation of the mine. But in reality, it is a poison-tipped arrow aimed at the Keystone pipeline.

With this authority the Interior Secretary could simply slap the sacred-and-or-cultural label on the private land in front of the pipelines extension, and it probably spells game over. If TransCanada, the company building the pipeline, has to wait until a Republican wins the White House and puts in a new Interior Secretary, it might be better off focusing on other projects.

The economic truth about Keystone is that railroads, some owned by Warren Buffett, are already carrying the shale and crude oil that the pipeline is supposed to move. Stopping Keystone is about stopping the flow of oil—it is about the federal government picking railroads over the pipeline, or letting the market decide.

Lujan is one of the most consistent opponents of the Keystone extension. He has voted against every effort to streamline its approval and supported every effort to stop or delay the project.

One of the reasons Keystone supporters are concerned is specter of Republican support for the amendment by GOP members of Congress looking for a chance for a “turquoise,” or pro-Indian vote.

The Republican rustling up GOP support for the amendment is Rep. Tom Cole (R.-Okla.), a man who proudly wears his turquoise ties as he carries water for new Indian casinos and increased subsidies for tribal regimes.

Opposing the Lujan-Cole team is the lead sponsor of the land-swap bill, Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R.-Ariz.). Gosar, in a strong “Dear Colleague” letter decimated the arguments for the Lujan amendment, when he pointed out the nearest Indian reservation is 20 miles away from the site of the new mine.

Gosar wrote to his colleagues that in 2008, the Forest Service conducted a survey of the mine site for areas that could be associated with native religious practices and after its investigation issued a Finding of No Significant Impact report.

Politicians are sometimes compared to actors, but the more helpful comparison is to magicians, who perform their tricks with one hand as the audience is watching the other.

As everyone is focused on the fights to defund the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, raise the debt ceiling and figure out the budget for fiscal year 2014, environmentalists lobbying against extension of the Keystone XL pipeline slipped a simple amendment on a simple bill.

Make no mistake, H.R.687 is supported by Democrats and Republicans in the Arizona delegation, as well as local officials and media in the state. Not only would it create jobs and economic growth in Arizona, the new mine will help America’s “copper gap,” which has the country importing 600,000 metric tons of copper annually.

The Lujan amendment was designed to piggyback on a bill that will easily pass Congress, and when it is only after it became law that its true purpose would be revealed. Fortunately, alert conservatives took a hard look at an amendment to protect sacred sites, where there were none, and connected the dots before it was too late.


Neil McCabe

Neil W. McCabe is a journalist working in Washington. He was a senior reporter for the Human Events newspaper and for many years a reporter for The Pilot, Boston's Catholic paper. In 2009, he deployed to Iraq with the Army as a combat historian for 15 months.