WASHINGTON—Nebraska’s senior senator might now be convinced that the U.S. State Department is adhering to appropriate protocol before deciding on a thumbs up or down for a multi-billion dollar, controversial Canada-to-Texas tar sands oil pipeline.
In a statement issued Friday, Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson said a Dec. 9 letter from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assured him that “the department won’t consider the pipeline permit application until the environmental study is done and the department has taken into account all state and federal views about the proposal.”
But the environmental community is far less confident. Green organizations are calling for the Secretary of State to recuse herself from the decision—expected in 2011. Public statements she made in California in October indicate Clinton was already inclined to approve TransCanada’s Keystone XL project, and the groups also now claim there’s a potential conflict of interest involving a TransCanada lobbyist who previously worked for her presidential campaign.
Due to the international nature of Keystone XL, the U.S. State Department is in charge of Calgary-based TransCanada’s request for a presidential permit to build and operate a 1,702-mile pipeline to carry heavy crude oil from oil sands mines in the province of Alberta and across six states to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.
Nelson and other Nebraskans are worried that almost 300 miles of proposed pipeline through 14 counties in their home state has the potential to irreversibly damage an aquifer and a most fragile and scenic landscape.
Almost two months ago, the Nebraska senator wrote a letter to Clinton challenging remarks she made about the pipeline after an October speech at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. Nelson was concerned the State Department was endorsing the project before completing a federally required environmental impact statement.
Now three watchdog groups are seeking any correspondence between the State Department and Paul Elliott, a former presidential campaign manager for Clinton. Elliott is the chief Washington, D.C. lobbyist for TransCanada.
“One of the concerns is that Hillary Clinton has already made up her mind on this pipeline,” Stephen Porter, director of the climate change program at the Washington office of the Center for International Environmental Law told Solve Climate News in an interview. “Naturally, we are curious to know what kinds of communications there have been. At this point, we don’t know whether there is any connection. If there are connections that aren’t quite right, we want to make those known.”
Terry Cunha, a TransCanada spokesman, dismissed those allegations.
“The presidential permit process is spelled out by a presidential executive order, includes more than 10 federal agencies and involves the input of a myriad of state and local governments across the country,” he wrote in an e-mail to SolveClimate News. “To suggest that the decision to grant a presidential permit for Keystone XL might be based on anything other than merits is laughable.”
The relationship between Clinton and Elliott—who served as the Clinton campaign committee’s national deputy director and chief of staff for delegate selection—is the “latest in a series of developments casting doubt on whether the State Department is fulfilling its obligations to conduct a thorough and transparent review of the environmental and public health dangers” of the proposed pipeline, Friends of the Earth wrote in a statement.
As director of government relations, Elliott is the principal lobbyist for TransCanada in the nation’s capital and in New York. A native of New York, Elliott also has served as deputy press secretary to New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
Waiting for Clarity on Environmental Impact Statement
Speculation in Washington is that a decision on the next step for pipeline review could come any day now.
However, a Natural Resources Defense Council specialist who is tracking the issue carefully said in an interview that word from Capitol Hill and the State Department is that early January is the more likely timetable.
“It’s not as if there’s a firm deadline,” said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the international program at NRDC. “The State Department can take as long as they want to do their final analysis.”
In her letter to Nelson, Clinton explained that her agency is now reviewing public comments on the draft environmental impact statement and editing that document. The State Department hasn’t decided whether the next iteration will be a supplemental draft document or the final version.
That decision makes a huge difference in the timing of a final pipeline decision, explained Casey-Lefkowitz, because releasing a supplemental draft environmental impact statement requires a new public comment period of one to three months and a new analysis. That could add several months to the process.
If the State Department opts to release a final environmental impact statement instead, however, the agency might or might not call for another round of public comment and is under no obligation to incorporate that feedback into the document.
“We have been asking for a supplemental environmental impact statement,” Casey-Lefkowitz said. “With a new round of public comment, it would get the best information possible in front of not just the White House but all the agencies involved.”
Once a final environmental impact statement is released, the next step in the permitting process for the trans-boundary project requires “cooperating” agencies and tribal organizations to provide input about whether such a pipeline is in the national interest. They have 90 days to do so.
“When all of that is completed, this is the packet of information that the State Department uses to make the decision about whether or not to grant the permit,” Casey-Lefkowitz said.
EPA Already Raised Carbon Concerns
In July, the Environmental Protection Agency gave the draft environmental impact statement its lowest possible ranking. EPA officials said they found the document “inadequate” because of a lack of safety and spill-response planning and inattentiveness to the potential impact on Canada’s indigenous communities.
The EPA also cited the significant degradation caused by oil extraction from Canadian tar sands, the emissions of greenhouse gases from the mining process and the risks associated with transporting as much as 900,000 barrels of oil daily via a 36-inch diameter pipeline stretching from the province of Alberta on a 1,375-mile U.S. route stretching through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas to Gulf Coast refineries near Houston.
As well, heads of the Department of Energy and the Department of Interior requested significant additional analysis.
Earlier Call for Clinton Recusal
Two of the three advocacy organizations that filed the Freedom of Information Act request this week—Friends of the Earth and the Center for International Environmental Law—joined five other groups Nov. 4 in calling for Clinton to remove herself from the pipeline decision-making process.
“As the State Department’s review is ongoing, it is inappropriate for you to make statements about what final decision you are ‘inclined’ to make,” leaders of the seven groups wrote in a two-page letter about Clinton’s Oct. 15 remarks. “The decision about whether or not to permit this pipeline is a key environmental decision for this administration, yet your recent comments make it clear that you are biased.”
Capitol Hill Weighs In
Policymakers have proven to be both pro- and anti-pipeline.
In a July 16 letter, 35 House Republicans encouraged Clinton to approve Keystone XL as quickly as possible. That followed a June 23 letter signed by House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman of California and 49 other Democrats.
Waxman’s plea urged Clinton to consider the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands oil to figure out if it consistent with the Obama administration’s clean energy and climate change priorities.
In late October, 11 Democratic senators—all from states not directly affected by the pipeline—laid out 10 specific concerns about TransCanada’s proposal. Nelson and Nebraska’s other senator, Republican Mike Johanns, have expressed similar concerns in separate correspondence with the State Department.
Johanns has asked the U.S. State Department to pursue an alternate, more easterly, route that would traverse north from Steele City, Neb., to the U.S./Canada border in North Dakota instead of Montana.
Such a solution, he says, would keep TransCanada’s pipeline out of Nebraska’s sandhills and away from the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies 78 percent of the water supply and 83 percent of the water for irrigation in the Cornhusker State.
“Thank you for your personal commitment to making progress on climate change” the 11 senators wrote in their Oct. 29 letter to Clinton. “As you recently stated, tar sands oil is ‘dirty oil.’ Approval of this pipeline will significantly increase our dependence on this oil for decades.”
Photo: Mark Nozell