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April 24, 2013

To Thine Own Self Be True: The President, the Pipeline, and the Principle

Nebraska-KXL-hearingCitizens at the State Department's April 18 hearing on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in Grand Island, Nebraska

By Courtenay Lewis, Beyond Oil Campaign Representative

When the State Department released its supplemental review of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in March, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune mused, "We're mystified as to how the State Department can acknowledge the negative effects of the earth's dirtiest oil on our climate, but at the same time claim that the proposed pipeline will 'not likely result in significant adverse environmental effects.' Whether this failure was willful or accidental, this report is nothing short of malpractice."

Unfortunately, State's behavior regarding the contractors it hired to prepare the Keystone XL review suggests that someone at the Department is obscuring close connections between its hired contactors and Big Oil, resulting in a report that appears to be a far cry from the impartial, objective analysis that the country deserves.

On Monday, April 22 -- Earth Day -- a group of organizations including the Sierra Club wrote to the Department of State's Inspector General, asking him to investigate the agency's selection of contractors with strong ties to Big Oil to evaluate Transcanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline project. The State Department hired Environmental Resources Management Inc. (ERM) to assess the environmental impacts of the project, even though some of these same contractors had in the past worked for TransCanada and other energy companies that would benefit from the pipeline. ERM is also a dues-paying member of the American Petroleum Institute, which is one of the most vocal supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline.

While hiring ERM contractors with existing industry relations might at first glance seem like a simple act of oversight by the State Department, State's subsequent behavior suggests that they felt compelled to hide something. At the last minute before publication of the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, the State Department redacted the resumes of several ERM team members who had previously worked for TransCanada and other companies that could gain financially from the pipeline.

State already has a history of hiring Keystone XL contactors with strong ties to the industry. Its Inspector General slapped them on the wrist in 2011 for failing to follow rigorous conflict-of-interest procedures in hiring Cardno-Endrix, a third-party contractor that prepared the Environmental Impact Statements for the Keystone XL Presidential Permit in 2011. After the Inspector General called State out, the agency promised to clean up its contracting vetting processes.

Has State just made the same careless mistakes regarding crucial conflict-of-interest considerations in hiring consultants for the Keystone XL project? Or, as the bio redactions imply, was this a case of State knowing that it was hiring Keystone proponents who were far from objective? Either way, this is a grave cause for concern, and we expect better from Secretary of State John Kerry. Landowners who will have a pipeline forced on their properties, communities that will experience rivers of oil gushing down their streets, and future generations who'll suffer the impacts of climate change if Keystone XL is approved deserve more than a slipshod or biased environmental report.

Fortunately, at least one federal agency is wary of giving Keystone the thumbs-up without any proper environmental analyses. On the same day as the Conflict of Interest letter was released, the Environmental Protection Agency expressed its own skepticism about the report, stating that it included "insufficient information" regarding the pipeline's impacts, and specifically highlighting that the Draft Environmental Impact Statement did not adequately outline the project's greenhouse gas emissions, pipeline safety, alternative pipeline routes, and community and environmental justice impacts. These critical considerations are a huge blow to any State Department assertion that the Keystone XL pipeline benefits the national interest (outside of the handful of Canadian and American energy companies that would pocket the pipeline's proceeds without owning any of the risks).

The EPA report adds even more weight to voices coming from around the country calling for the Obama administration to reject the Keystone XL pipeline project due to the havoc that tar sands emissions and oil spills would inevitably wreak on our climate and communities. The number of comments sent to the State Department asking the Obama administration to reject the Keystone XL pipeline has climbed well past the one million mark, with comments collected by 20 organizations including the Sierra Club. Last week over 200 pipeline opponents testified at the State Department's final public hearing in Grand Island, Nebraska.

"The science is screaming at all of us and demands action," Secretary Kerry said about climate change in Monday's Earth Day Remarks.  To mark the same occasion, President Obama proclaimed, "Nothing is more powerful than millions of voices calling for change." Never has it been more pressing that the Obama administration heed its own advice, by honoring anti-Keystone XL cries nationwide, and rejecting a pipeline whose advocates grow less credible each day.



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