A State Department official confirmed that for the first time the department will make public all the public comments received on its draft environmental impact statement for the Keystone XL pipeline.
In an email to InsideClimate News, the official, who requested anonymity, said the comments would be posted on Regulations.gov.
"Although the volume of comments will be extraordinarily high, the posting will maximize transparency," the official said. "We are working on the technical details and exact timing of posting the comments."
Last month, Imani J. Esparza of the Office of Policy and Public Outreach in the State Department's bureau of oceans, environment and science told InsideClimate News that only a summary of the public comments would be included in the final version environmental impact statement.
To see the comments themselves, a request under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, would be required, a process that can take so long that the Keystone debate could be over before the documents are made available.
But the State Department has changed its mind, and is adopting the common federal practice of making electronic dockets about proposed federal regulations available for inspection on Regulations.gov. Comments on the State Department's draft documents, such as earlier environmental impact statements on Keystone, have not previously been published there.
The FOIA that InsideClimate News filed for access to these documents is no longer necessary. If this case sets a precedent, it may never be necessary again for the public to gain routine and timely access to its own comments on environmental impact statements on international pipeline projects, a key tool of the National Environmental Protection Act.
"This shows that the State Department is capable of posting public comments," said Sofia Plagakis, the environmental right-to-know policy analyst at the Center for Effective Government. "So there would be no excuse not to do so in the future, but it may depend on continued pubic pressure."
Access to the full docket will allow the public to see detailed comments by project proponents who want to influence the final version of the environmental statementâ€”such as TransCanada, which is building the pipeline, and the government of Alberta, which has been lobbying hard for approval. Both of them have filed comments, according to spokespeople, but neither has agreed so far to release copies of their comments, which InsideClimate News has requested several times. Major environmental groups that oppose the pipeline have released their own comments when requested.
"The only regret is that the public comments were not made public from the beginning," Plagakis said. "It could have created a dialogue and improved public participation."
The State Department's process for handling the Keystone permit process has been under intense scrutiny, most recently since it released its fourth environmental impact statement last month. It suggested the Keystone XL would have no significant environmental impact, nor would it accelerate the development of tar sands oil production. Both conclusions generated significant controversy.
Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the department must address substantive issues raised in comments filed during the ensuing 45-day comment period. The contractor responsible for producing the DEIS, a firm called Environmental Resources Management (ERM), was to be responsible for summarizing the public comments and responding to them.
Concern over conflict of interest in the handling of the comments was heightened when Mother Jones reported that the State Department had redacted the biographies of three ERM employees before posting the consulting contract on the agency's website.
Mother Jones obtained the full biographies, which revealed that the ERM employees had previously worked for TransCanada, the company applying for the permit to build the pipeline, and other industry giants with interests in Canada's oil sands, including Exxon, BP, ConocoPhillips, Shell and Koch Industries.
Earlier this week, the EPA issued a harsh critique of the State Department's study, calling it "insufficient," and environmental groups hinted they would go to court because the study violated the nation's core environmental law.
Those were among the first public comments released independently when the official comment period ended on Monday. The State Department has yet to set a date for making the full docket of comments public, which will include more than one million filed by opponents through a grassroots campaign.
At the same time, the State Department has not responded to a series of requests under the Freedom of Information Act for access to other documents related to the Keystone environmental assessment and permit process, including third-party reports used during the writing of the draft impact statement, information about TransCanada's oil spill emergency plans, and information about contacts between state department officials and lobbyists for the pipeline.