Climate & Energy Blog

Massive tar sands oil pipeline no longer sure bet for Big Oil; pivotal Obama administration decision nears

Posted Jan. 20, 2011 / Posted by: Kelly Trout

TO:        Journalists covering U.S. and Canadian energy and climate news
FROM:   Alex Moore, Dirty Fuels Campaigner, Friends of the Earth
DATE:    January 20, 2011
RE:        Massive tar sands oil pipeline no longer sure bet for Big Oil; pivotal Obama administration decision nears


Once thought a shoo-in for Obama administration approval, a proposed tar sands oil pipeline emerged as a controversial flashpoint in the fight over our nation’s energy future in 2010. The Keystone XL project, proposed by TransCanada, would pump extremely polluting tar sands oil from Canada through six U.S. states to refineries near Houston, endangering people and ecosystems along its route.

In coming weeks, the State Department, which is overseeing the permit review process, is expected to decide whether to engage in more rigorous scrutiny of the Keystone XL pipeline’s environmental and public health dangers -- or cave to oil industry pressure and rush to a final decision.[1]

This memo is designed to provide you with an overview of recent developments as well as resources to cover the mounting resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline and the controversy surrounding the Obama administration’s review. Friends of the Earth can put you in touch with additional resources and spokespeople should you decide to pursue this story.

Please contact Kelly Trout by email at ktrout@foe.org or by phone at 202-222-0722 with questions.

Key developments that have pulled this controversial pipeline off the fast track

  • Congressional opposition solidifies -- Fifty-one members of the U.S. House of Representatives and thirteen U.S. senators, including Nebraska Senators Mike Johanns (R) and Ben Nelson (D),  have lodged strong concerns about the project’s environmental impacts with the Obama administration.[2] Ninety-seven percent of lawmakers who spoke out continue to serve in the 112th Congress.[3]
  • TransCanada abandons effort to shirk safety standards -- In August 2010, the Canadian pipeline firm conceded to pressure and withdrew its application for a controversial safety waiver on pipeline thickness and oil pressure standards.[4]
  • EPA gives State Department failing grade for draft environmental analysis -- The EPA gave the State Department’s draft Environmental Impact Statement on the project its lowest rating and recommended that the agency produce a supplemental analysis to address its oversights, including the complete omission of global warming impacts.[5]
  • Secretary Clinton’s biased remarks incite firestorm of criticism -- In October 2010, Secretary of State Clinton inappropriately stated that she is “inclined” to approve the pipeline, provoking strong rebukes from lawmakers and prompting calls that she recuse herself from overseeing the review process.[6]
  • Secretary Clinton’s ties to lobbyist spur Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request -- TransCanada’s lead lobbyist for the Keystone XL pipeline, Paul Elliott, is also a former high-level presidential campaign aide of Secretary Clinton’s. In January 2011, the State Department refused environmental groups’ FOIA request for correspondence between the agency and Elliott, casting doubt on the transparency of the environmental review process.[7]
  • Bill introduced in Nebraska legislature could cripple pipeline -- Nebraska State Senator Annette Dubas introduced a bill on the first day of the new legislative session that would force oil pipeline companies to get state approval for projects before using eminent domain to obtain land.[8]
  • Local organizing intensifies – The Keystone XL pipeline has become a contested local political issue in states that would be crossed by it, with community organizing to stop the project surging in Nebraska and East Texas.

From East Texas to Nebraska to the U.S. Congress: Big Oil faces mounting opposition

Grassroots organizing forms the frontlines of resistance to the pipeline

Last year, the worst oil disaster in our nation’s history and a massive tar sands oil pipeline spill that struck Michigan fueled mounting public and policymaker concerns about the dirty and dangerous consequences of extracting toxic tar sands oil and piping it across the United States.

The following examples of organizing reflect the diversity and depth of the grassroots efforts to stop the Keystone XL pipeline that emerged in 2010. If you are interested, Friends of the Earth can put you in contact with local activists who are leading these efforts.

  • Nebraska has been a hub of organizing against the pipeline, with local concerns focusing on the danger of oil spills contaminating the Ogallala Aquifer, which is just below the surface of the pipeline’s route and is the state’s primary source of drinking and agricultural water.  On January 5th, 2011, 125 ranchers, environmentalists and other concerned citizens rallied on the steps of the state capitol in Lincoln to demand that state officials take action to protect Nebraska’s environmental resources.[9]
  • In East Texas, landowners along the pipeline’s route are organizing to stop the pipeline, many in response to the misleading pressure tactics used by TransCanada in an attempt to gain control of their land. TransCanada used the threat of eminent domain to manipulate landowners into signing easements long before the pipeline had received necessary permits or had been evaluated by government officials.  Activists have set up a “Whistleblower Hotline” for landowners to report unfair treatment by TransCanada.[10]
  • In Canada, members of indigenous First Nations have been organizing against the rapidly expanding tar sands extraction industry, which is endangering their way of life and poisoning their water resources. In October, First Nation representatives traveled to Washington, D.C. to educate policymakers about the extensive impacts of the tar sands industry and how the pipeline would only heighten these impacts.[11]
  • Citizens across the country have protested the pipeline as a dangerous step backward from our transition to clean, safe energy sources. More than 100,000 citizens urged President Obama’s administration to halt the pipeline during the State Department’s official public comment period on its draft environmental analysis, a nationwide day of action in July united protest events in nine U.S. cities, and pipeline protesters also greeted President Obama at fundraisers in Chicago and New York.[12]

Lawmakers in Congress confront Obama administration with tough questions

The uprising of grassroots opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, as well as heightened media and public spotlights on pipeline safety and the climate change impacts of tar sands oil, moved dozens of influential members of Congress to speak out against the project.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who has power over the State Department’s purse strings as chairman of its appropriations subcommittee, led 11 senators in writing a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking tough questions about the thoroughness and transparency of her agency’s environmental review process.[13]

Concerns about the pipeline cross party lines. Nebraska’s Republican senator, Mike Johanns, opposes the pipeline as proposed because it threatens the Ogallala Aquifer,[14] the nation’s largest aquifer and a source of drinking water for more than two million Americans, including 80 percent of Nebraskans.[15]

Fifty-one members of the House have also voiced concerns about the pipeline to the Obama administration.[16] Top Democratic energy and climate policymaker Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) urged the Obama administration to reject the pipeline as “a step in the wrong direction.”[17]

Secretary Clinton, State Department Under Fire for Questionable Review Process

Flaws in the State Department’s draft environmental analysis

Because the Keystone XL pipeline would cross an international border, the State Department is charged with assessing its impacts and making the final permit decision. In April 2010, the State Department released a shoddy draft Environmental Impact Statement that omitted any analysis of how the pipeline would exacerbate global warming and failed to rigorously consider other potential air and water pollution and public health impacts. The Environmental Protection Agency gave the draft assessment a failing grade.[18]

Secretary Clinton incites firestorm of criticism with biased remarks

In October, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked that she was “inclined” to approve the pipeline and probably would not change her mind, even though the State Department was in the midst of evaluating public comments on the proposed projects and had yet to complete its legally mandated environmental review. Secretary Clinton’s inappropriate and prematurely biased comments provoked strong rebukes from senators and environmental organizations.[19]

Sen. Johanns warned that Secretary Clinton was exposing the State Department to lawsuits over the final pipeline decision, while eleven other senators, led by Sen. Leahy, urged her to not “pre-judge the outcome of what should be a through, transparent analysis of the need for this oil and its impacts on our climate and clean energy goals.”[20] In November, seven environmental and public interest organizations called on her to recuse herself from the decision because of her admitted bias.[21]

Lead TransCanada pipeline lobbyist is former high-level Clinton presidential campaign aide

The ability of Secretary Clinton and the State Department to fairly and rigorously judge whether the pipeline is in the public interest came under further scrutiny after the revelation that a former high-level Hillary Clinton presidential campaign official, Paul Elliott, is also TransCanada’s lead Washington, D.C. lobbyist for the Keystone XL pipeline.[22] In January 2011, the State Department denied a Freedom of Information Act request by watchdog groups seeking communications between the State Department and Paul Elliott.[23]  The groups are still pursuing the release of the communications. 

What’s Next?

The State Department is expected to decide in coming weeks whether to allow further public involvement in the analysis of the Keystone XL pipeline.[24]  The EPA has recommended that the State Department follow up its widely criticized draft Environmental Impact Statement with a complete Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS).  A SEIS would allow members of the public and other federal agencies to provide input on the project that is based on a thorough accounting of its potential dangers.  While this recommendation has been echoed by Sen. Johanns and dozens of other members of Congress, the State Department has not yet announced if it will release a SEIS.[25]

The alternative would be a fast-tracked approval process that would allow input from other federal agencies but shut citizens’ voices out. The fast-tracked option is being pushed by oil industry lobby groups that would rather keep the potentially disastrous environmental consequences of this pipeline and expanded tar sands development out of further public scrutiny.[26]  If the decision were fast tracked, the chorus calling for revocation of the State Department’s authority to oversee pipeline permitting decisions would certainly grow.

In either case, while Secretary Clinton will make the final recommendation on whether the Keystone XL pipeline is in the nation’s interest, given the political controversy around the issue, the ultimate decision will rest on President Obama’s shoulders.

The Keystone XL Pipeline: A Dangerous Dirty Oil Proposition

The Keystone XL pipeline is a threat to America’s environmental security and public health and to our global climate. In addition to endangering water resources and farmland in the Midwest with oil spills, the pipeline would double our country’s dependence on the dirtiest oil available.[27]

Compared to conventional oil, tar sands oil emits more climate-warming emissions and toxic air pollutants when produced and refined, making it worse for public health and the climate.[28] Downstream from tar sands oil extraction sites in Canada, indigenous communities are already experiencing high cancer rates.[29] When our global economy and human health depend on quickly and aggressively reducing dangerous climate-warming pollution, the tar sands oil that would flow through this pipeline would result in new global warming emissions equal to adding more than six million new cars to U.S. roads.[30]



[1] Moore, Leslie. “US mulls 'supplemental' draft EIS for TransCanada's Keystone XL: Clinton.” Platts. January 10, 2011: http://www.platts.com/RSSFeedDetailedNews/RSSFeed/Oil/6737355

[2] In June, fifty members of the House wrote a letter, followed by a letter from then House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman opposing the pipeline. Senator Johanns has written several letters, and Senator Nelson has written several as well. In October, eleven other senators wrote a letter calling on Secretary Clinton to pull the pipeline off the fast track.

[3] Only Congressman John Hall (D-N.Y.) was defeated in his bid for reelection. 

[4] Funk, Josh.  “Canadian pipeline firm makes safety concessions.” The Associated Press.  August 6, 2010: http://www.tulsaworld.com/business/article.aspx?subjectid=49&articleid=20100806_49_E1_OMAHAN920036

[5] Stoddard, Martha.  “EPA questions pipeline's effect.”  Omaha World Herald.  July 22, 2010: www.omaha.com/article/20100722/NEWS01/707229847

[6] Funk, Josh.  “Groups ask Clinton to recuse self on pipeline bid.” The Associated Press. November 4, 2010: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/04/AR2010110403545.html

[7] Brayton, Ed.  “State Dept. rejects FOIA on Keystone XL.” Michigan Messenger. January 13, 2011: http://michiganmessenger.com/45629/state-dept-rejects-foia-on-keystone-xl

[8] Beck, Margery.  “Nebraska bill would shackle oil pipeline.” The Associated Press. January 13, 2011: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-01-13/nebraska-bill-would-shackle-oil-pipeline.html

[9] Hovey, Art. “Lawmakers feel heat of Keystone XL opponents.” Lincoln Journal Star.  January 5, 2011: http://journalstar.com/news/local/article_7c3fdab8-cf81-5111-887b-b01a9f981a10.html

[10] Alberts, Sheldon.  “Canadian pipeline fuels anger of U.S. landowner.”  The Financial Post.  December 29, 2010: www.financialpost.com/Canadian+pipeline+fuels+anger+landowner/4037053/story.html

[11] “U.S. Oblivious to Oil Sands Impact: Native Leaders.” CBC News. September 22, 2010: http://www.cbc.ca/canada/edmonton/story/2010/09/22/edmonton-oilsands-natives.html

[12] Adams, John S. “Protests spew over Montana-Gulf pipeline plan.” USA Today. August 11, 2010: http://www.usatoday.com/money/economy/2010-08-11-pipeline11_ST_N.htm

[13] Letter sent by 11 senators to Secretary Clinton on October 29, 2010: http://www.foe.org/sites/default/files/11SenatorsRebukeClintonKeystoneXL.pdf

[14] Senator Johanns has taken many steps to push back against the pipeline. They are summarized here: http://johanns.senate.gov/public/?p=trans

[15] “USGS: Ogallala aquifer water quality currently acceptable.” Lincoln Journal Star. July 19, 2009: http://journalstar.com/news/state-and-regional/govt-and-politics/article_f9a83f7a-5f6b-5ede-b666-db3b9ea593e7.html

[16] Letter sent by 50 members of Congress to Secretary Clinton on June 26, 2010: http://www.foe.org/sites/default/files/House%20Letter%20on%20Keystone.pdf

[17] Letter sent by then House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman to Secretary Clinton on July 2, 2010: http://democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/index.php?q=news/waxman-opposes-proposed-keystone-xl-tar-sands-pipeline

[18] Letter and comments sent by the EPA to the State Department on July 16, 2010: http://yosemite.epa.gov/oeca/webeis.nsf/%28PDFView%29/20100126/$file/20100126.PDF?OpenElement

[19] Lee, Matthew. “Clinton remarks on Canadian pipeline stir debate.” The Associated Press.  October 22, 2010: http://www.mysanantonio.com/default/article/Clinton-remarks-on-Canadian-pipeline-stir-debate-858835.php

[20] Letter sent by 11 senators to Secretary Clinton on October 29, 2010: http://www.foe.org/sites/default/files/11SenatorsRebukeClintonKeystoneXL.pdf

[21] Funk, Josh.  “Groups ask Clinton to recuse self on pipeline bid.” The Associated Press.  November 4, 2010: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/04/AR2010110403545.html

[22] McCarthy, Shawn. “Ex-Clinton worker to lobby for pipeline.” The Globe and Mail.  December 15, 2010: http://v1.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20101215.RBTICKERA1215ATL_1/TPStory/?query=Companies

[23] Brayton, Ed.  “State Dept. rejects FOIA on Keystone XL.” Michigan Messenger.  January 13, 2011: http://michiganmessenger.com/45629/state-dept-rejects-foia-on-keystone-xl

[24] Feldman, Stacy.  “In 2010, Canada's Oil Became a Contentious American Energy Issue.”  SolveClimate. December 28, 2010: http://solveclimatenews.com/news/20101228/canadas-oil-sands-became-contentious-american-energy-issue-2010

[25] Moore, Leslie. “US mulls 'supplemental' draft EIS for TransCanada's Keystone XL: Clinton.” Platts. January 10, 2011: http://www.platts.com/RSSFeedDetailedNews/RSSFeed/Oil/6737355

[26] “TransCanada sends letter to Hillary Clinton.” Lincoln Journal Star.  November 4, 2010: http://journalstar.com/news/state-and-regional/nebraska/article_cda8ba70-e871-11df-a06b-001cc4c002e0.html

[27] Keystone XL Pipeline Fact Sheet.  Friends of the Earth: http://www.foe.org/sites/default/files/Keystone%20XL%20fact%20sheet.pdf

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

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