WASHINGTON—Environmental advocates are already doubtful of the U.S. State Department’s ability to conduct a transparent review of a controversial Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline.
And their suspicions were heightened recently when department decision-makers rejected their request to turn over any and all correspondence the department has had with the chief lobbyist for TransCanada, the company seeking to build what’s known as the Keystone XL pipeline. The lobbyist, a man named Paul Elliott, was one of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s former presidential campaign staffers.
Leaders of the three advocacy organizations that filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request say they suspect some sort of impropriety.
In a two-page form letter dated Jan. 5, State Department authorities responded with a perfunctory rejection to the FOIA request that Friends of the Earth, the Center for International Environmental Law and Corporate Ethics International initiated in mid-December. The organizations received notice of the denial last week.
Due to the international nature of Keystone XL, Clinton’s team at the State Department is tasked with granting a thumbs up or down to TransCanada’s request for a presidential permit to build and operate the 1,959-mile pipeline. The complete Keystone infrastructure could carry up to 1.1 million barrels of heavy crude oil a day from tar sands mines in the province of Alberta and across six states to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.
A decision on the multi-billion dollar proposal is expected within the next weeks or months.
Who Is Paul Elliott?
Calgary, Alberta-based TransCanada hired the native New Yorker as its government relations director more than two years ago. A review of Elliott’s background indicates TransCanada evidently hired him for his political connections and knowledge of the U.S. legislative process, not his energy background. After he joined TransCanada, the Canadian American Business Council (CABC) elected Elliott to its board of directors.
Elliott graduated from Fordham University with a bachelor’s degree in English literature, and starting working in public relations, according to a summary of his resume included in a July 2009 CABC news release. He served as a public affairs adviser to Robert Rubin, the treasury secretary during President Bill Clinton’s administration, and later as deputy press secretary to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Before TransCanada hired him, Elliott served as the national deputy director and chief of staff for delegate selection for the 2008 presidential campaign of then-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. Those duties required him to manage the recruiting and electing of the delegates pledged to Clinton, ensure she was on the ballot nationwide, and strengthen her relationships with Democratic governors.
SolveClimate News reached Elliott by telephone Friday as he prepared to board a train from Washington to New York. The 40-year-old said he wasn’t at liberty to speak about the situation and politely referred all questions to TransCanada’s corporate offices.
Though the environmental community has no direct evidence that Clinton and Elliott have even corresponded directly in their post-election roles, the groups said they are exploring the potential for conflicts of interest.
Before they even learned about Elliott’s involvement with TransCanada, seven green groups had called on Clinton to recuse herself from the pipeline decision because of public statements she made in California last autumn indicating she already backed the Keystone XL project.
“All of this raised some red flags,” Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, told SolveClimate News in an interview. “It warrants our learning more and the public learning more. The fundamental purpose of FOIA is to find out how the government is making decisions. Keystone XL is a massive project with tremendous environmental implications.”
“That may be a fishing expedition,” he added, “but only because we think there are fish there.”
Two-Part Rejection from State
In declaring the request invalid, the State Department sent the watchdogs a two-page form letter with a checklist of 10 possible reasons that FOIA requests are rejected. Two items were marked with an X. One states: “You have not reasonably described the records you seek in a way that someone familiar with Department records and programs could locate them.” The other reads: “You have not agreed to pay the fees associated with the processing of your request.”
“It is clear this rejection was done as a delaying tactic,” Muffett said. “Given that we specified the individual (Paul Elliott), it’s really hard to get more specific than that. Perhaps we can identify the time frame more narrowly.”
He also pointed out that costs are routinely waived for nonprofits when they indicate that their request is for the public good.
At least one FOIA expert agrees with Muffett that the State Department lacks sufficient grounds for its denial.
After being asked by SolveClimate News to review both documents—the FOIA request and the State Department response—FOIA specialist Mark Caramanica concluded that the federal government wrongly dismissed the request on two counts without giving it the attention it deserved.