Environmentalists who spent a month analyzing public comments on the Keystone XL linked more than half the pro-pipeline comments they examined to people in the oil industry. As the U.S. State Department considers whether to approve the project, the activists want those remarks to carry less weight than those written by people without a vested interest in the outcome.
Out of a random sample of more than 1,000 comments in support of the Keystone, the environmentalists connected about 60 percent of the commenters' names to oil and pipeline company employees, investors, lobbyists, attorneys and others working for the industry—all of whom could potentially benefit from the construction of the pipeline, the activists said. If built, the pipeline would carry diluted bitumen from Canada's tar sands region to the Texas Gulf Coast.
"We don't want to accuse anyone of wrongdoing ... but to me this raises a red flag," said Terra Friedrichs, a volunteer at the environmental group 350MA who led the analysis. 350MA is a Massachusetts grassroots organization that advocates for sustainable energy. It often collaborates with, but is not affiliated with the national group 350.org.
Regulations.gov, the website used to collect public comments, doesn't require people to disclose their names, nationalities, occupations or financial interests.
The State Department, which must decide whether the pipeline is in the national interest, said the comments page is open to all. "Throughout this process it's important that we hear the views of any member of the public that wishes to share their opinion or viewpoint," a department spokesperson said in an email.
The spokesperson added that all of the comments will be considered alongside other factors—"including energy security; environmental, cultural, and economic impacts [of the pipeline]; foreign policy; and compliance with federal regulations." The final decision on the Keystone will come from President Obama.
Friedrichs, who works as a socially responsible business consultant, agreed that everyone has a right to comment. But she said individuals on both sides of the debate should be required to disclose any financial interests in the project. A paid environmental lobbyist commenting in opposition should also have to explain his or her ties, she said.
350MA wants the State Department to conduct a thorough analysis of the comments before they're read, and to give more weight to remarks written by people who don't have a financial stake. "[We] ask that ALL of the comments be available for a six-month period of time so that research may be done into the identities of the commenters," Friedrichs said.
The agency received an estimated three million comments. Industry, union and environmental groups used mass emails and form letters to drive up their numbers. Both sides touted their final counts—one million in support of the pipeline, two million in opposition—as evidence of the public's backing or disapproval of the contentious project.
Regulations.gov has registered only about 125,000 comments. That's because some of the comments are still being processed, and also because petitions register as a single comment regardless of the number of signatures.
The Washington Post reported last week that nearly half of the two million anti-pipeline comments came from outside the U.S. Most were collected and translated by the advocacy group Avaaz.
The Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan organization that tracks money in politics, found that nearly 8 in 10 of the 125,000 registered comments were similarly worded pro-pipeline remarks submitted by people who listed BKM Strategies as the "originating organization." BKM is a consulting firm with ties to Dick Cheney's daughter Mary Cheney, who has an active role in political nonprofits that fund conservative causes.
Friedrichs got the idea for 350MA's so-called "Out-the-Insider" project last month when she submitted her own comment online. After searching the names of a few pro-Keystone commenters and finding industry ties, she recruited other environmentalists to conduct a more systematic analysis.
Between early February and Mar. 6, the second-to-last day of the public comment period, Friedrichs worked with 11 other volunteers to research more than 1,000 pro-pipeline comments. Most of the connections were made through google searches that combined the person's full name with the word "oil" or "industry."
A smaller subset of names was analyzed with more in-depth research into marriage records, country club and Chamber of Commerce memberships. Ninety percent of that group yielded the names of people linked to the oil industry, either through employment, direct family ties or close social connections, Friedrichs said.
Whenever they found a name of interest, they submitted a comment on regulations.gov using the term INSIDER ALERT! to flag the issue. For instance, "Is this the same Terry Morgan? EMPLOYEE OF BIG OIL~SHELL," they wrote on one comment, followed by a link to Morgan's LinkedIn profile.
"A lot of the names aren't that unusual, so who knows if it's the same person," said 350MA volunteer Sue Donaldson, medical director of a community hospital psychiatric clinic. "But I was amazed at the number of times I would google a name and the first name would be someone with a clear [oil industry] connection of some kind."
Friedrichs said she applauds the State Department for making the comments publicly available during the comment period. "Far too often, public comments are not available until AFTER critical decision points, making it impossible to identify whether 'insiders' are the ones who are making the comments," she said in an email.
But now that her group has identified these ties, she hopes the State Department will consider minimizing their role in the review. In the long term, she hopes her group's efforts will lead to greater transparency.
"We can't have a good government or democracy ... unless people disclose their vested interests, and the government has a responsibility to know where the comments they're using came from," Friedrichs said.
Boston College law professor Zygmunt Plater said the 350MA project could help shed light on potential "astroturfing," in which "narrow interest groups driven by short-term profits" are behind a disproportionate number of public comments.
While everyone has a right to comment, "it seems to me equally significant to know where the comments are coming from," he said. "It's important to note which are coming from the provenance of insiders with a vested financial interest and a narrow outcome, and those which are coming from people who represent a broad perspective of public health, safety and [considerations] for the long term."