Food and Technology Blog

Secretary Kerry, time for a fresh start on Keystone

Posted Jul. 31, 2013 / Posted by: Adam Russell

This article, by Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica, was originally posted here on The Hill's Congress Blog.

During Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, the State Department’s review of whether to permit construction of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline -- which would carry the world’s dirtiest oil from northern Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries -- was tainted by flagrant conflicts of interest and insider influence. Hopes were high that things would change when John Kerry, long an outspoken champion of aggressive action to fight global warming, took over at Foggy Bottom.

But more than six months into Kerry's term, the cloud of scandal over the pipeline permitting process has only grown darker.

The latest black mark is that the firm hired to write the government’s assessment of Keystone's environmental impact lied on its conflict of interest disclosure form when it denied having worked for any entity that will benefit from the pipeline's construction.

Public records show that the London-based firm, Environmental Resources Management, worked with both pipeline builder TransCanada and ExxonMobil on another proposed pipeline in Alaska, and works worldwide with more than a dozen other oil and gas companies with a stake in the tar sands. Astonishingly, a State Department spokeswoman admitted to Postmedia News of Canada that the department does not verify whether contractors are telling the truth on their conflict of interest forms. 

This blatant lie should be grounds for throwing out the study and barring the firm from future federal contracts. The study will be crucial in determining whether the Obama administration decides to issue the permit. But if ERM lied on its disclosure form, how can Secretary Kerry, President Obama or the American people trust anything the firm says?

This week more than two dozen environmental and public interest groups urged Kerry to dump the study and take action against ERM. The State Department's inaction to date is consistent with its shameful record. Since TransCanada first applied for the permit, State has been less an objective judge, whose duty is to determine if Keystone is in the national interest, than a sympathetic collaborator willing to sneak a thumb onto the scales.

In 2008, on TransCanada’s recommendation, the State Department hired Cardno ENTRIX, even though the firm listed TransCanada as a major client. The first review downplayed the climate impact of the pipeline and the risk of potentially catastrophic spills, prompting the EPA to call it “insufficient.” A Freedom of Information Act request uncovered documents showing that officials worked closely with TransCanada on its permit application and with TransCanada lobbyist (and former Hillary Clinton campaign official) Paul Elliott in his efforts to build support for the pipeline.

Following an outcry by members of Congress, the State Department’s inspector general investigated the agency’s handling of the review. Its 2012 report found that State failed to adequately prevent conflicts of interest by consultants and recommended changes in the agency’s contractor selection process. But it seems the inspector general’s recommendations have fallen on deaf ears.

ERM's new review is not an objective assessment, but a piece of pro-pipeline propaganda. It again downplays the harm the pipeline and its dirty payload will have on the climate.

To do the right thing, Kerry will have to tune out an army of Washington lobbyists and PR firms that TransCanada and Alberta have hired to grease the wheels. Not surprisingly, many of these lobbyists are former aides to Kerry, Clinton or President Obama. Beltway insiders may yawn at the fact that more than two dozen lobbyists pushing the pipeline have close ties to the administration, but ordinary Americans know a rat when they smell one.

Last year then-Senator Kerry spoke sharply against “coalitions of politicians and special interests that peddle science fiction over science fact. A paid-for, multi-million dollar effort that twists and turns the evidence until it’s gnarled beyond recognition. And tidal waves of cash that back a status quo of recklessness and inaction over responsibility and change.” He was speaking about the Senate’s failure to pass comprehensive climate legislation, but the charge fits the facts of the pro-Keystone campaign just as well.

Kerry inherited a fatally flawed review process. Now it's time for him to stop it. The State Department cannot continue to rely on the rubber-stamp, business-as-usual approach it’s taken until now. This decision is too important not to be based on the most robust and accurate assessments of the pipeline, not the wishes of the oil industry or the findings of a contractor that lied to the government.

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