In Age of Electronic Democracy, Keystone Voices Get Wide Audience

As EPA begins posting public comments on the Keystone XL, individual voices emerge. Meet Stu Luttich, who talks about 'aboriginal prairie sod.'

Sec. of State John Kerry
Secretary of State John Kerry. The State Department released the first batch of public comments on the Keystone XL pipeline last week. Credit: Cliff, flickr.

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WASHINGTON – Stu Luttich of Geneva, Neb. is just one of the thousands of ordinary Americans who sat down in early March and gave the State Department their two cents worth on the Keystone XL pipeline. 

Luttich has what he calls “some ground” in Nebraska that he’d like to restore to native grassland, and he works with other Nebraskans trying to do the same thing. So when the State Department opened its 45-day public comment period on the Keystone draft environmental impact statement, he offered his take on the matter. 

“The new route does not avoid fragile soils or ecosystems,” Luttich wrote. “Breaking aboriginal prairie sod is basically a one-time event, and, will require centuries, if not millennia, to be completely restored to the original unbroken condition. This fact was not even addressed, nor questioned, in any of the Environmental Impact Statements. TransCanada Ltd. simply stated their intentions to restore the land to as it once was; but, they will not, because they can not. The capability and understanding for doing so does not yet exist. When the plow enters the sod, what is turned asunder is what has required multiple thousands of years to create. It is analogous to trying to put the proverbial ‘Humpty-Dumpy back together again’; and, we simply lack the technical ingenuity, skills and understandings to accomplish the task within the context of the lifetimes of those living.

“Yes, we can, and, likely will, make a feeble restoration effort,” he added, “but, what results will not be the same as once was … That chapter is over!”

Luttich can be a reticent man—”That might be me,” he said when InsideClimate News contacted him last week—but he can also warm up on this favorite subject, as he did in his eight-paragraph comment, filed on March 12.

In the past, his wistful prairie musings might as well have been whispered into the wind. Who was listening, really?

As originally planned, a contractor hired by the State Department would have summarized the public comments and then attached the summaries as an appendix to the final environmental report. At best, voices like Luttich’s would have been muffled.

But after InsideClimate News formally requested that all the comments be released to the public—not just the comments from individuals, but also from corporations, lobbyists, government agencies and public interest groups—the State Department agreed to post them on line.

The State Department said it received more than 1.2 million comments. The first batch appeared at this Web address on May 24, just over a month after the close of the comment period.

Some of the most detailed and significant comments have yet to be released, and it is not clear how long the State Department will take to make them available. For example, TransCanada and the province of Alberta both told InsideClimate News that they filed comments, but said they’d leave it to the State Department to make them public. Until those documents are posted, it won’t be possible to know what arguments these foreign pipeline advocates made in their effort to influence the American government’s Keystone decision. If the pipeline is approved it will carry a form of oil known as diluted bitumen, or dilbit, from Alberta, Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

It is hard to know how much weight the public’s comments will carry in comparison to those of powerful interest groups. But in this age of electronic democracy, it’s now possible to hear a very broad range of individual voices in a way that was not possible before.

No sooner did the State Department post the 3,500-page draft environmental impact statement on March 1 than this terse ricochet came bouncing back:

“Please say no to the transcanada pipeline !! Joan Krueger Sent from my iPhone;‐) ?”

The vast majority of the comments filed so far are firm but polite form letters sent in by members of well-organized environmental groups opposed to the pipeline. In those cases, the brief text of each form letter is posted along with a list of signatories.

For example, in one electronic folder is a list of perhaps 40,000 or so individuals who sent in the letter drafted by the Sierra Club—and that is just those who acted in the first three weeks of the comment period.

The letter they signed said in part:

“It’s impossible to fight climate change while simultaneously investing in the dirtiest, most carbon‐intensive fossil fuels on the planet. The administration’s bold advances in clean energy and vehicle efficiency have been critical, but much of that progress—and the credit that comes with it—will be erased if we also develop the tar sands.”

Some people edited the form letters to make them more personal.

Jennifer Sutton of Phelps, N.Y., added a note to the Sierra Club’s form letter, reminding Secretary of State John Kerry that she walked door-to-door for him when he ran for president. “The main reason I drove 16 hours north to a town I’d never visited and then spent 4 days knocking on doors (with my four year old son) was because you had shown your commitment to positive action on environmental issues.”

Some letters carried sharper barbs.

“Dear Secretary Kerry,” wrote Jess Linde, a freshman at Brandeis University. “I would personally like to thank you for insuring I inherit a dead planet.” After accusing the administration of selling out to oil interests, she concluded: “I was so excited to vote for the first time in 2012. Clearly, I should’ve just stayed home.”

There were also form letters—fewer in number, so far—from signatories favoring the pipeline. A letter drafted by the Institute for Energy Research, a pro-industry advocacy group, asserted that “there is no doubt that the Keystone XL pipeline is in the national interest.”

“As the most recent Environmental Impact Statement finds, pipelines are safe and protect the environment,” it said, echoing some of the State Department’s own reasoning. “Canada will develop their oil reserves regardless of your decision about Keystone XL, and the oil will find its way to dirtier refineries in China via less efficient tankers.”

Technical comments, like the long and detailed studies some environmental and industry groups have filed, are probably the most likely to bring about significant revisions to the final report.

Some individuals, too, sought to inject new insights into the debate.

Mary C. Henry, who said she had “never written a letter to you or any Secretary of State before,” is a scientist who studies changes to the earth’s surface using satellite image data. She submitted Landsat images “to help illustrate the destruction in Alberta.” It can be found as a PDF attachment here.

Will the public comments, in all their cacophony, make a difference?

“I doubt it,” said Luttich, the Nebraska landowner. “I think that the decision is going to be a political one, based on circumstances that are beyond our reach—I’m talking about the common lay person. The power of the oil companies is quite extreme. That is a struggle you have to endure, I suppose.”

But as Luttich talked, he also said he had been encouraged by comments filed by the Environmental Protection Agency, which criticized the draft environmental impact statement.

That’s the thing about public comments—when they are made public, people do notice.