Obama Trapped in Politically Sticky Tar Sands Pipeline Decision

WASHINGTON, DC, November 4, 2011 (ENS) – On Sunday, thousands of demonstrators will attempt to encircle the White House in an effort to persuade President Barack Obama to reject TransCanada’s Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

Protesters plan to carry signs showing quotes from Obama’s speeches when he was campaigning for President in 2007 and 2008, such as, “Let’s be the generation that frees itself from the tyranny of oil.”

President Barack Obama meets with National Security staff, Nov. 2, 2011 (Photo by Pete Souza courtesy The White House)

Because the US$7 billion, 1,700-mile oil pipeline would cross the U.S.-Canada border carrying tar sands oil from northern Alberta to refineries in Texas, the President must determine whether or not it is in the national interest.

Until this week, President Obama had passed that decision to the State Department.

But the administration is facing mounting pressure from those who say extracting, transporting and burning the heavy tar sands oil would harm the environment. “Tar sands oil is the dirtiest oil on Earth,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.

Also lobbying against the pipeline are Nebraska ranchers and farmers who fear pipeline spills would pollute the Ogllala aquifer, which supplies drinking and irrigation water to many of the Great Plains states.

Protesters at a rally against TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline outside the State Department’s final public hearing, October 7, 2011. (Photo by NWF)

In view of these pressures, the President said Tuesday, “The State Department is in charge of analyzing this, because there’s a pipeline coming in from Canada. They’ll be giving me a report over the next several months. My general attitude is, what is best for the American people? What’s best for our economy both short term and long term? But also, what’s best for the health of the American people?”

“We want to make sure that we’re taking the long view on these issues,” he told a reporter from Omaha, Nebraska station KETV during an interview at the White House Tuesday. “I think folks in Nebraska, like all across the country, aren’t going to say to themselves, ‘We’ll take a few thousand jobs if it means that our kids are potentially drinking water that would damage their health.'”

The anti-pipeline activists say getting the President to “step up and own this decision” is “an important victory.”

But White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was not so clear. When pressed Wednesday by reporters to say whether or not President Obama himself would make the Keystone XL pipeline decision, Carney would only say, “I can assure you that this decision, that this determination, will reflect the President’s views. And I think that’s what he was expressing yesterday.”

A sign at the October 7, 2011 pipeline protest outside the State Dept. (Photo by Heather Moyer)

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund says, “Keystone XL pipeline is a terrible idea.”

Krupp and many other environmental groups oppose the pipeline because it would transport tar sands oil, “an exceptionally dirty kind of oil known as diluted bitumen.”

They worry that the pipeline would, as Krupp puts it, “cut across the already-stressed Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest aquifers in the world and a critical source of fresh water for more than 2 million Americans and the U.S. High Plains’ agricultural industry – part of America’s breadbasket.”

The pipeline would bisect the Sandhills of Nebraska, 1.3 million acres of wetlands and home to more than 1,000 species of mammals, birds, fish, and plants, which would be harmed in the event of an oil spill.

Finally, the environmentalists contend, the pipeline would “accelerate the refining of the gooey toxic tar sands oil, which generates more global warming pollution per barrel than conventional oil,” Krupp explained.

Obama’s re-election depends in part on his ability to energize his supporters, but many environmentalists who supported him in 2008 are disappointed with his progress in accomplishing environmental goals.

Demonstrator at the White House, September 3, 2011 (Photo by Fritz Myer)

The Keystone XL pipeline has been a focus for their discontent. A two-week long series of demonstrations in front of the White House in August and September resulted in the arrests of more than 1,200 people, including high-profile scientsts and faith leaders.

More than 6,000 people already have signed up to form a human protest circle around the White House on Sunday.

Fifteen Democratic lawmakers upped the political ante October 26 with a letter asking the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General to probe whether the department’s review of the proposed pipeline has been polluted by conflicts of interest.

The lawmakers, in a separate letter, urged President Obama to “hold off on any final decision on the Keystone XL pipeline permit application until an independent Inspector General investigation is completed, made public and fully evaluated.”

The 15 legislators, led by Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent, and Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee, ask State Department Deputy Inspector General Harold Geisel to review whether TransCanada may have improperly influenced the State Department’s selection of a contractor for the Environmental Impact Statement, EIS.

Anti-pipeline d emonstrators gather in front of the State Dept., October 7, 2011 (Photo by Josh Lopez courtesy Tar Sands Action)

The legislators expressed concern that the State Department allowed TransCanada, the pipeline developer, to screen applicants to conduct the EIS, which is required by federal law. TransCanada successfully recommended that the State Department select Cardno Entrix to conduct the EIS, despite Cardno Entrix listing TransCanada as a “major client” and Cardno Entrix having a pre-existing financial relationship with TransCanada.

“On its face alone, this creates an appearance of a conflict of interest,” the legislators wrote.

“Given the significant economic, environmental, and public health implications of the proposed pipeline, we believe that it is critical that the State Department conduct thorough, unbiased reviews of the project,” states the from lawmakers, including Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

On October 28, a dozen national environmental groups called for an investigation by the State Department’s inspector general.

The groups sent Deputy State Department Inspector General Harold Geisel a letter identifying several U.S. Office of Government Ethics regulations that State Department officials appear to have violated.

They worry about the relationship between TransCanada lobbyist Paul Elliott and State Department officials. Elliott was deputy campaign manager for the 2008 presidential campaign of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Broderick Johnson (Photo courtesy Open Secrets)

The groups are also concerned about the recent hiring of former TransCanada lobbyist Broderick Johnson to be a senior adviser to Obama’s re-election campaign.

“TransCanada hired good friends of Secretary Clinton to lobby for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and it seems to have paid off with access and patronage from the State Department,” said Brune. “This is surprising from Secretary Clinton, whom we’ve known as a champion of children’s health and the environment. It’s time to roll back the curtain on TransCanada, this dirty political insider game, and this dangerous and unnecessary pipeline.”

Brune said the decision-making process has been tainted. “The State Department has demonstrated a conflict of interest and deep pro-industry bias, mismanaging the environmental review and public input process,” he said.

Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman, a Republican, has called a special legislative session to consider rerouting the proposed pipeline around the Ogllala aquifer. The session, which opened on November 1, is to consider giving Nebraska authority to say where TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline goes through the state. At least five bills have been proposed.

“The key decision for current pipeline discussions is the permitting decision that will be made by the Obama Administration, which is why I have urged President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to deny the permit,” said Governor Heineman. “However, I believe Nebraskans are expecting our best efforts to determine if alternatives exist.”

Industry experts say the Alberta tar sands will be developed, whether the oil comes to the United States or is shipped elsewhere, so U.S. rejection would not benefit the environment.

If Obama approves the pipeline, he will lose environmentalist support. That could affect the 2012 election by making it difficult to mobilize people to volunteer, knock on doors and donate money, if they believe the President cannot stand up to polluters.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.