Environmental and ethics groups sued the State Department today to gain access to possible communications between a lobbyist for a Canadian oil pipeline company and the State Department, headed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The lobbyist, Paul Elliott, formerly worked as the national deputy director for Secretary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Elliott was then hired by TransCanada Pipelines, Ltd, the company behind the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would run through America’s Great Plains to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Elliott registered as a lobbyist only after news organizations reported on his lobbying activities on behalf of TransCanada in December 2010. TransCanada needs a permit from Secretary Clinton to build the Keystone XL pipeline.
The suit follows a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Friends of the Earth, Corporate Ethics International, and the Center for International Environmental Law late last year seeking to uncover any communications between Elliott and the State Department that would reveal whether Elliott’s former position as campaign director for Secretary Clinton resulted in bias in the permitting process. The State Department initially denied the request for those records on January 5, 2011. A few weeks later, the Department reversed its decision to deny the request but has delayed processing the request, and has not indicated whether or when it will release the information.
“Why is the State Department refusing to release these communications?” asked Erich Pica, President of Friends of the Earth. “This calls into question the agency’s decision to rush the review of the Keystone XL pipeline, despite its massive environmental risks and bipartisan opposition to it.”
Before deciding whether to grant a permit, the State Department must analyze the pipeline’s risks and finalize an Environmental Impact Statement. After the Environmental Protection Agency told the State Department its draft environmental impact statement was inadequate, Secretary Clinton nonetheless said, last October, that the State Department was “inclined to approve” the permit. Secretary Clinton’s agency has been criticized by farmers and ranchers in the pipeline’s path for rushing the review process and not holding hearings on the department’s latest draft analysis. The State Department plans to make a final decision about the Presidential Permit before the end of 2011.
“Clearly, TransCanada hired Mr. Elliott to take advantage of his previous service to Hillary Clinton,” said Kenny Bruno with Corporate Ethics International. “We think the public has a right to know in what ways TransCanada and Mr. Elliott have attempted to influence Secretary Clinton’s view of this controversial project.”
Tar sands mining operations destroy forests and wetlands, with vast drilling infrastructure, open pit mines, and toxic wastewater ponds up to three miles wide, permanently damaging the environment. The extraction process involves strip mining and drilling that injects steam into the ground to melt the tar-like crude oil from the sand and requires massive amounts of energy and water. In fact, tar sands oil production emits about three times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions as extraction of conventional oil and uses from two and a half to four times the amount of water. The construction and operation of the Keystone XL pipeline itself poses additional environmental risks, including potential contamination of major freshwater aquifers.
“This raises important questions of transparency and fairness,” said Sarah Burt, an Earthjustice attorney. “If a decision to approve a transcontinental pipeline is made based on relationships and access to Clinton, while completely overlooking the significant environmental and public health dangers posed by the pipeline, the public needs to be aware of it.”
The public interest law firm Earthjustice represents Friends of the Earth, Center for International Environmental Law, and Corporate Ethics International.