Yet another embarrassing detail about the Obama administration's handling of the Keystone XL pipeline has emerged. In order to view the public comments to the State Department's new environmental impact statement on the pipeline, you will have to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
A summary of the comments will be included in the final version of the environmental impact statement when it is released, said Imani J. Esparza of the Office of Policy and Public Outreach in State's bureau of oceans, environment and science.The letter of the law (National Environmental Protection Act) requires government agencies to "make environmental impact statements, the comments received, and any underlying documents available to the public pursuant to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act." Most agencies adopt a much higher standard of transparency, making all documents public without requiring a FOIA request.
But the only way to see the comments themselves is by filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, a process that can take so long that the Keystone debate could be over before the documents are made available.
The public will not be able to access the full electronic docket on line.
Perhaps we should look at the big picture.
There are two primary hypotheses about the administration's behavior regarding the Keystone XL pipeline.
1. The administration has not reached a decision on the pipeline and is acting in good faith to assess the risks and benefits. Let's call this the null hypothesis.
2. The administration decided long ago to approve the pipeline and is working to minimize any adverse political consequences by minimizing its environmental risks. Let's call this the alternative hypothesis.
Now let's examine the data.
The Keystone XL pipeline was a source of controversy in 2011. The State Department produced an environmental impact statement that minimized the potential risks associated with the pipeline. The cozy relationships between officials and prominent Keystone lobbyists raised eyebrows. The president decided to delay the final decision until after the 2012 election. Despite assurances that spills were likely to be rare and would not endanger the Ogallala Aquifer, TransCanada agreed to reroute the Nebraska segment of the pipeline.
A little over a month into Obama's second term, the State Department quietly published a new and improved environmental impact statement on a Friday afternoon (March 1) at 5 PM. The timing guaranteed minimal news coverage of the release during the weekend new cycle. The documents downplayed any impact of the pipeline on expanding Canadian tar sands development on greenhouse gas emissions along with any significant risk of spilling diluted bitumen.
Shortly after the release, we learned that the environmental impact statement was written by consultants with close ties to the oil industry. While consultants are commonly used in preparing complex reports, the choice of contractors is relevant. If you are concerned about the environmental consequences, there are many options for firms capable of examining the carbon footprint of tar sands oil and the consequences of pipeline spills of bitumen sludge. If you want to minimize those potential consequences, you hire firms that have long whitewashed environmental problems for the oil industry.
The State Department redacted the work histories of the primary consultants employed by Environmental Resources Management (ERM). ERM was tasked with the final preparation, publication, and handling of public comments.
Experts who helped draft the report had previously worked for TransCanada, the company looking to build the Keystone pipeline, and other energy companies poised to benefit from Keystone's construction. State released documents in conjunction with the Keystone report in which these experts' work histories were redacted so that anyone reading the documents wouldn't know who'd previously hired them. Yet unredacted versions of these documents obtained by Mother Jones confirm that three experts working for an outside contractor had done consulting work for TransCanada and other oil companies with a stake in the Keystone's approval.One of things ERM is managing for the State Department is public comments to the environmental impact statement. Instead of making those comments available to the public, which will also include comments from other agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department is requiring a FOIA request to view them. This will delay disclosure until after the decision has been made.
If the Obama administration is acting in good faith and seriously evaluating the environmental risks associated with Keystone XL pipeline and tar sands expansion, I cannot find any evidence of it. The games and lack of transparency is far from trustworthy. It feels like more business as usual on climate change.
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