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Air Force jet training

The congressional chess match over the Keystone XL pipeline added some Twister rules Friday when Montana’s senators linked it to a proposed U.S. Air Force fighter jet training range.

Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Democrat Sen. Jon Tester together announced plans to block the Powder River Training Complex with an amendment to the Keystone XL construction bill. The 28,000-acre area includes parts of southeast Montana where military planes from North and South Dakota would make low-altitude training runs.

“Tester and Daines have heard from Montanans who are concerned that the military’s presence in the area will jeopardize general aviation safety, interfere with emergency services and impede economic activity,” a joint statement from the senators stated Friday. “In further attempts to stop the expansion, Tester and Daines are introducing an amendment to the Keystone bill to prohibit the Air Force from occupying low-level airspace over a crucial onramp for Bakken oil in Baker, Montana.”

Daines spokeswoman Alee Lockman said the amendment would prevent the Air Force from moving forward with the expansion as currently proposed. Tester spokeswoman Marnee Banks added that the Federal Aviation Administration has not finished its record of decision on the project. Both the FAA and the Air Force must OK the plan.

“This decision is no doubt disappointing, but there are still opportunities to make sure that Montanans’ concerns are heard," Tester emailed about the Air Force announcement to approve the testing range. "Moving forward, the Air Force and the FAA must ensure that the proposed expansion doesn’t negatively impact general aviation, agricultural operations and the safety of the Keystone pipeline.”

In December, critics of both senators objected to the way Tester and Daines added a package of Montana land management bills to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act in the final days of the previous congressional session, saying the designation of wilderness and opening of energy exploration on BLM land had nothing to do with military budgets.

The Keystone XL bill is moving through the Senate on an “open amendment” process, which allows wide latitude for other topics to be added. Also, Lockman said in an email that the testing range’s overlapping of the proposed Baker pipeline depot created a safety issue for the Keystone project.

“This project is an economic lifeline for many eastern Montana communities, but the Air Force’s proposed expansion could put Montana pilots at increased risk and create problems for emergency services that are critical to the pipeline’s success,” Daines said in an email. “Montanans have waited long enough for this pipeline to be built – it’s important that these serious concerns are addressed.”

TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline would move petroleum from the tar-sand deposits of northern Alberta south through northeast Montana and the Bakken Formation oil fields to Steele City, Nebraska. Existing pipelines would move the crude oil from there to refineries on Texas’ Gulf Coast.

Keystone XL would have a capacity of about 830,000 barrels a day along its 1,179-mile span, including 100,000 barrels coming from Bakken suppliers. That would boost Montana’s access to refinery buyers through the Baker depot.

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